How much does it cost to dig a tunnel

How much does it cost to dig a tunnel DEFAULT

The Boring Company scored a surprise victory in Chicago today with the announcement that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had selected Elon Musk‘s tunneling venture to design, build, and operate a rapid transit link between O’Hare International Airport and the city’s central business district. Even more surprising: Emanuel is adamant that the project will require no taxpayer money. The Boring Company has promised to pay for it.

The project will cost less than $1 billion, sources told the Chicago Tribune. But the civil engineers, infrastructure executives, and mass transit experts we spoke to are extremely skeptical of that figure.

Musk has said tunnels are the only way to "solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic.” And his promise to dig these tunnels faster and at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods is what has attracted so much municipal interest. The city of Chicago hasn’t released the bid, so it’s hard to say specifically what will happen if that estimate is too low. But we do know, generally, that the project will take longer and require more borrowing if the Boring Company’s projections are off base. That could mean more financial problems for Musk, more scrutiny for Emanuel and his administration, and another failed transportation project for the city of Chicago.

According to the Tribune:

In exchange for paying to build the new transit system, Boring would keep the revenue from the system’s transit fees and any money generated by advertisements, branding and in-vehicle sales, Rivkin and the company said. Ownership of the twin tunnels has not been determined, but the Emanuel administration plans to seek a long-term lease to Musk’s company, a source familiar with the proposal said.

Later in the article, Chicago Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin is quoted saying the city will negotiate to ensure it “will share in any significant profits that are made” from the Boring Company’s project. Rivkin declined to offer a timeline for when the project might get built but said Boring was “very forward-leaning and optimistic about its timeline.”

At a press conference in Chicago on Thursday with Mayor Emanuel, Musk sounded optimistic about being able to cover the daily costs of running the rapid transit line, but he was more circumspect about the debts he was likely to accrue by building it. “I think it’s very unlikely that it wouldn’t be able to make up for its operational costs. Basically it’s certain to cover its operational costs.” He added, ”Whether it provides a good return on capital is a separate question.”

Asked what he personally gets out of the project, Musk said, “First of all, I should preface this by saying... what I would ask is that... this is a difficult thing that we’re doing. It’s a hard thing. It’s a new thing. And I’d hope that you would cheer us on for this. Because if we succeed, it’s going to be a great thing for the city. And if we fail, well, I guess me and others will lose a bunch of money.”

Consider the immense costs associated with transportation projects in the world, especially those that require tunnel boring: the Second Avenue Subway in New York City cost about $2.5 billion per mile, while the Line 14 Extension in Paris ran about $450 million per mile. The Boring Company claims it can dig 18 miles of tunnels for a fraction of those prices.

“What’s going to drive down costs below the subway in Paris by a factor of 10?” said Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “I’m looking forward to finding out.“

Samaras noted that the Boring Company has been selected as what’s called a D-BOM contractor, which stands for design, build, finance, operate, and maintain. According to the Federal Highway Administration, a private entity in a D-BOM contract “is responsible for design and construction as well as long-term operation and/or maintenance services.” The public sector secures the project’s financing independently and retains the operating revenue risk. “So they’re on the hook to making sure this system performs well over time,” he said.

Others view these projections with more skepticism. Yonah Freemark, an urbanist and journalist who has worked in architecture, planning, and transportation, said he was shocked to read about the costs associated with Musk’s proposal.

“The first is that a construction cost of $500 million to $1 billion would already be remarkably low — effectively $29 to $59 million per mile of tunneling — if you exclude the cost of the stations themselves and the vehicles,” Freemark wrote in an email. “But the stations are likely to be expensive.”

The Boring Company has said it would rehabilitate the Chicago Transit Authority high-speed rail ”superstation” beneath Block 37, which was mothballed in 2008 due to $100 million in cost overruns and limited interest in private operator of the express service. That rehabilitation will cost at least $50 million, and building a massive new station under O’Hare would likely cost even more. The transit system’s O’Hare station will be located near the new global terminal Emanuel has announced as part of an $8.5 billion overhaul of the airport.

Then there are the vehicles, or “skates” as Musk calls them. The Boring Company says it will use modified Tesla Model X car chassis as an underpinning for its so-called Loop public transportation system. These vehicles would be transported on “autonomous electric skates” traveling at 125–150 mph. Electric skates will carry between eight and 16 passengers or a single-passenger vehicle, according to the company’s website.

According to the Tribune:

The Chicago system is expected to be able to handle nearly 2,000 passengers per direction per hour, with cars leaving every 30 seconds to two minutes, city officials said. How much a ride will cost is subject to final negotiations, but Boring has stated a goal of charging between $20 and $25 — or half the cost of a typical ride-share or cab ride to O’Hare, a source familiar with the talks said.

By comparison, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority can squeeze about 2,000 people on a single subway train. That raises the question: why is the Boring Company limiting the size and capacity of its vehicles?

Freemark figures that Boring would need about 61 vehicles in an active fleet. Using some back-of-the-envelope calculations, he figures they’d want 75 vehicles total, with a few extras for backup. Buses are each a minimum of $300,000 to make; trains cost at least $2.7 million per car. So if Musk is making his vehicles at bus prices, that’s about $22 million for the fleet. And the fleet will likely need a maintenance facility, which will cost a minimum of $30 million, Freemark says. “Add those things together, and suddenly Musk is projecting only spending $348 to $848 million to build those 17 miles of tunnel — shockingly less than any similar project,” he says.

I went to Elon Musk’s Boring Company pep rally | Artist: Alex Castro

A more realistic estimate, Freemark says, is two stations for $100 million apiece, the vehicles for $500,000 each, and a maintenance facility for $50 million. “That would leave $213 to $713 million for the tunnels,” he says. “I’m quite skeptical, especially since to meet safety and ventilation requirements, this tunnel can’t just be bored straight from downtown. It will have to have emergency exists, exhaust valves, etc. throughout its route. Where will these go and what will their cost be? Given the very high frequency of vehicles Musk is proposing (30-second headways), these exits are essential.”

All that aside, an airport-to-downtown connection in Chicago is “a good way to demonstrate the approach and costs of the Boring Company,” Samaras said, “with a lot less risk than building out a multi-stop system with car elevators as shown in the Boring Company’s original pitch video.”

On its website, the Boring Company says it can lower the costs associated with tunneling through two methods: reducing the size of the tunnel diameter and increasing the efficiency of tunnel-boring machines. That includes using automation, increasing the amount of power to the boring machine, and replacing diesel fuel with electric power.

Our first glimpse of the Boring Company was from a short video tweeted by Musk in April 2017 that depicted individual vehicles being lowered below ground via car elevators that were seamlessly installed in the street. From there, it’s a high-speed ride through Musk’s tunnels on electric skates. After another short elevator ride, the car is back on street level.

The Chicago plan is certainly a deviation from that original vision, but large infrastructure products are difficult to do in the US. It took nearly 100 years to get any traction on the Second Avenue Subway in New York; across town, costs associated with the massive East Side Access project under Grand Central Station have ballooned to $12 billion. California’s bullet train project lumbers ahead, despite having no prospects for adequate funding to complete an initial segment with a chance of attracting riders.

“It is very difficult to build anything new in the US of scale,” Dean Wise, former vice president for network strategy at BNSF Railway, told The Verge. “And as someone who’s primarily privately funded, we have a billion dollars of hot money in our hand, ready to build some facilities on the West Coast. And we saw the five-year delays, the eight-year delay, and now nothing happens... When projects don’t get built at all, why should someone engage in that effort?”

So why is Musk engaging in that effort, when the possibility of failure is so high? At the press conference Thursday, the billionaire addressed it directly: “You know I do think that there is a role for doubters. People should question things, and it shouldn’t be taken as a given that things are going to work because often things do not work.”


Elon Musk’s Boring Company is actually boring, and that’s what will make it such a huge success

What must the world look like to Elon Musk when he wakes up every morning? Does he pull his curtains back, look out the window and see a world of Isaac Asimov flying cars, with Robert Heinlein rockets headed to Mars, and Arthur C. Clarke artificial intelligence menaces?

Musk’s sci-fi visions are a large part of his mystique. His latest Tony Stark-esque conception came in a tweet last month:

New York to Washington in 29 minutes certainly would be a game changer, but there’s something more pedestrian going on here, too. Musk likes to portray himself as an engineer and a dreamer—that’s what underlies the Hyperloop talk—but his real business play is taking on the exorbitantly high cost of infrastructure in the US.

Consider: New York City’s newest subway line, the Second Avenue extension in Manhattan, hums along underground at 15.4 miles per hour, or about 22.6 feet a second. And in each second of your luxurious $2.50 ride under the Big Apple, you cruise past $518,160-worth of tunnel.

That’s not a typo. Each one of the two miles of extension cost an astounding $2.73 billion. Tunnels are never cheap, but per mile the new subway line is the most expensive in the world. For comparison, digging all the way across the English Channel, a full 23.5 miles, cost around $30 billion in today’s dollars, or $1.3 billion per mile. Madrid managed to complete a subway expansion in 1999-2003 for a mere $104 million a mile (although it was not all underground).

The high cost of tunneling under America

Building tunnels in the US is more expensive than anywhere else in the world by a huge margin. (Although Australia isn’t cheap either.) For the majority of us that might at most be an interesting fact for some truly lame cocktail party conversation, but if you’re a billionaire industrialist, a cost differential of 10x between industrialized countries for a basic service smells like money. Which is why Elon Musk is currently dreaming about ways to build tunnels under LA.

The Boring Company arrived in April, launching with a video announcement on YouTube. The short clip showed a car (a Tesla, of course) darting through Los Angeles traffic, only to pull into what looks like an oversized window-washing cart, which is then sucked into an underground tunnel, and whisked to its final destination, unimpeded by gas-consuming dinosaurs.

Musk’s electric sleds are the vision part of his transportation-business plan—something that looks like a Jetson’s-level technological advance and would probably blow away a potential investor. But the real engine of this project, the place where Musk can actually make a ton of money, is in figuring out how to reduce the bloated cost of digging a tunnel in the US. If someone could figure out how to dig a tunnel in the US at the same cost they can do it anywhere else in the world, they’d make a fortune, and win contracts for any tunnel project in the country.

This is the exact type of market inefficiency that investors and hedge fund operators look for. If, for example, investors notice that oil costs 10 times more in Canada than anywhere else in the world, they’ll see it as a safe bet that oil there is overpriced, and will fall in the long run. But most of those bets are just that—a gamble on something outside investors’ control. It’s rare to have the gravitas and resources to actually change how a market or an industry works, like actually repricing the oil in Canada. And that’s what Musk hopes to do to tunnel digging in the US.

One reason tunnel digging in the US is so pricey is that labor costs there are much higher than in most other parts of the world. Productivity is also higher in the US, and major strides are being made on making burrowing machinery more efficient; Musk has talked about increasing the power of drilling machines and automating tunnel reinforcements, all of which would increase speed.

But to be successful, Musk doesn’t have to do any of that. He merely has to avoid what is actually causing the exorbitant costs in the US market: a combination of how few drilling companies there are in America, the inefficiencies of governments (the only real buyers when it comes to tunnels), expensive union contracts, and onerous governmental regulations.

Musk has already done this once, to massive success.

Rocketing out of inefficiency

Musk has said that SpaceX, his rocket company, was born when he was personally exploring how to send a miniature greenhouse to Mars on his own dime and found it prohibitively expensive. It would be cheaper, he decided, to build his own rocket. There’s no reason to doubt that’s part of the story, and there is real innovation now coming out of SpaceX; they had to build their own engines and rockets and there’s the promise that their larger and reusable rockets will greatly reduce the cost of getting something to orbit.

But for now that’s just the jazz hands overtop the real footwork.

Musk actually found millions of dollars in value in breaking into the US spy-satellite business and overturning a massive market inefficiency: For almost a decade there was only one US company in the military-rocket game, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing called United Launch Alliance. Every top-secret government project had to use United Launch Alliance, because it was the only company with top-secret clearance. As might be expected when there’s only one bidder on must-do government projects, the cost for the US to launch top-secret satellites has for years been higher than it was for the rest of the world.

Then SpaceX entered the market, and after a decade of being the only ride in town, United Launch Alliance began to falter. It struggled to match SpaceX’s prices for military contracts, and even dropped out of some bids. SpaceX delivers other payloads too, of course, but government contracts are the largest share of their business. It’s a classic tale of what happens to a monopoly when it meets a freer market—and a story in which SpaceX is poised to reap millions.

A backroad to auto success

Musk’s biggest bet, Tesla, also seems like a play against market stagnation, although in this case not necessarily the type that can be pinned on government. In 2003—the year Tesla launched—the American auto industry was the envy of the industrial world. But it was also bloated and stale, managing old factories and organized labor. Back in 2003, GM, which would require a bailout in 2008, was still making money, but its pension costs were about to balloon, to around between $900 and $1,300 per car in 2012. And, aside from tinkering in the early 1990s, the auto industry largely ignored electric.

Musk saw an untapped niche in electric cars, a cool technology that Detroit wasn’t limber enough to pivot into. Aside from some glorified golf carts, the hybrid-electric car history started with the Tesla Roadster in 2008. Since, Tesla has had a long run virtually unopposed in building electric cars, factories and charging networks. (Although, as Ford and GM have shown recently, old-auto may be catching up in the electric game. A big battleship may take a while to turn, but when it does, look out.)

Recently, a video of Musk surfaced and made the internet rounds. It shows him taking delivery of a McLaren F1 that cost $800,000 in 1999, his present to himself for selling his first venture, Zip2. Musk is happy about his new car, but what he’s really excited about is his next venture:, a finance company that later merged with PayPal. Listening to Musk, you hear hints that in 1999 he saw finance as a stale market ready to be disrupted with internet technology. Standing in front of an ATM, he says, “we’re going to transform the traditional banking industry.”

For Musk, the market niche is the true basis of innovation. Yes, patents and inventions follow, but the initial insight is finding an industry that is moving too slow, or is impervious to change, often because government and industry have colluded to make it that way. When it comes to running a business, Musk is more Andrew Carnegie than Nikola Tesla.

A tunnel may seem a strange place to find an internet billionaire or a space magnate. But with billions to spend on equipment and engineers, Musk has the chance to take on another slow-moving eddy in the stream of capitalism. If he could cut the cost of digging a tunnel in the US by even a fraction, using what is working in overseas drilling, he could find himself in control of another market niche.

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The high-tech, low-cost world of tunnel building

Engineers in recent decades have developed mechanized and automated systems to chew through deep rock or muck and immediately line an excavation to prevent collapse—all without disturbing the busy city above. That means projects that once would have taken armies of men years to dig now can advance in a fraction of the time and at much lower cost.

Massive robotic worms have been burrowing rail, road and utility tunnels under New York, Singapore and London, little noticed by residents. Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis are boring vast underground cisterns to store rainwater. And Cleveland is punching narrow sewer-pipe ducts through dirt and rock without ripping open streets or lawns.

Even cities prone to seismic activity, such as Los Angeles and Istanbul, are building tunnels thanks to innovations in equipment and techniques. In the Turkish megalopolis, a new roadway under the deep Bosporus waterway includes joints that permit sections of the tunnel to move during an earthquake without structural damage.

“Major cities just can’t function without going underground,” says Joe Guertin, a retired geotechnical engineer who worked on tunnels in the U.S. for five decades, including New York subway projects in the 1970s. “Technology has changed the equation.”

Urban stealth

Not all projects advance smoothly. Under Seattle, one of the world’s largest tunnel-boring machines sat idle for two years until December, undergoing repairs after unexpectedly hitting metal pipes near the start of a highway dig. But Seattle’s experience—which attracted a lot of attention because of the project’s problems and delays—is unusual these days.

“There are tunnel-boring machines all over the world in very complex geology that never get any attention,” says Michael Mooney, a professor of underground construction and tunneling at the Colorado School of Mines.

Indeed, the number of tunnel-boring machines, or TBMs, in operation has surged since 2000. Herrenknecht AG, one of the world’s biggest TBM makers, says it is providing machines for as many as 100 projects annually, up from as many as 20 some 15 years ago.

“The ability to deliver a tunnel on time and on budget has changed a lot…and really pushed the industry,” says Achim Kühn, a spokesman for the privately held German company, whose tunnel-boring machines can cost more than $50 million each.

Few places illustrate the progress more than New York. The metropolis was a tunneling pioneer a century ago, but financial woes after World War II ended that. Today, urgently needed rail tunnels are again advancing.

Few New Yorkers are aware of the underground work that is going on, which makes the city’s top rail tunneler happy. Michael Horodniceanu, president of capital construction for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, keeps a photograph of central Manhattan streets ripped open to build the Broadway subway line around 1900. The old construction approach, which turned the famously busy thoroughfare into a massive trench, cut off buildings and snarled traffic while the avenue was excavated and resurfaced.

Tunnelers then “weren’t concerned with the impact of the construction on the surrounding area,” says Horodniceanu. Today, upending lives and commerce isn’t an option.

MTA projects now snake through spots with more than 100,000 people per square mile, including along Manhattan’s Second Avenue and posh Park Avenue.

“The technology allows us to go and dig without people knowing we are there,” Horodniceanu says.

Dramatic savings

Pioneering urban tunnels — including London’s Thames Tunnel, which opened in 1843, and New York’s Holland Tunnel, which opened in 1927 — were dug by workers with picks and shovels. Supplying air to workers and fortifying the dig before it could collapse were constant challenges. Tunneling through hard rock required blasting that threatened the buildings above.

Machines began replacing human tunnelers in the 1950s, after American mining engineer James Robbins built a giant auger to eat through shale for a hydroelectric dam in South Dakota. The tunnel-boring machine, a cylinder with cutting wheels protruding from its circular face, dug up to 10 times as fast as traditional methods.

But most cities sit on softer ground that can collapse after excavation, like sand on a beach. Many urban tunnels must run below the water table in saturated, fluid earth. Even mild subsidence can damage pipes, rail tracks or buildings above. So during the 1970s, Japanese and German engineers learned to use water and air pressure to stabilize the ground around a borer. They developed tunnel-boring machines that could robotically install precast concrete tunnel-lining panels immediately behind the cutting face, leaving a nearly completed thoroughfare in their wake.

The savings from automation can be dramatic. Horodniceanu says the MTA recently had to manually dig a particularly difficult 120-foot tunnel at a cost of almost $1 million per foot. By contrast, tunneling 3 miles under Second Avenue with giant machines cost about $19,000 per foot, he says.

“The fact we can utilize TBMs makes a hell of a difference,” he says.

Other recent advances in tunneling technology include precision guidance to thread around existing infrastructure and electronic monitors to track vibrations, which let tunnelers stop at the first hint of trouble. Advances in chemistry allow engineers to thicken loose ground or soften hard terrain.

These innovations have enabled tunneling in areas once considered impassable. Miami recently dug a traffic tunnel beneath a busy waterway by eating through a mix of saturated ground and porous coral rock that previously defied affordable excavation. The dig was “wildly successful,” Mooney says.

New technologies, analytical tools and materials have “facilitated the design of tunnels under adverse conditions,” says George A. Munfakh, director of geotechnical and tunneling at engineering firm WSP-Parsons Brinckerhoff. With science and technology, “the engineering and economics of urban tunneling have definitely changed.”


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Does how cost much a it to tunnel dig

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