Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The Boring Company will develop an underground “people mover” for the Las Vegas Convention Center that’s more marketing flash than public transit.
Last week, the Boring Company won a $48.6 million bid to design and build a “people mover” beneath the Las Vegas Convention Center. The payout represents the first actual contract for Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s tunneling venture. And Las Vegas, a tourist city that wants to be seen as a technology hub, will get a new mobility attraction with the imprimatur of America’s leading disruptor.
“Las Vegas is known for disruption and for reinventing itself,” Tina Quigley, the chief executive officer of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, said when the partnership between the Boring Company and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) was announced in March. “So it’s very appropriate that this new technology is introduced and being tested here.”
But the Boring Company won’t exactly be delivering “new” technology when it opens the “LVCC Loop.” To interconnect the sprawling convention center campus—which attracts 1.4 million visitors a year to confabs like the Consumer Electronics Showcase—it will dig a pair of concrete tunnels, 12 feet in diameter and less than a mile long. The asphalt-paved tubes will be just wide enough for a single vehicle to drive down. (There will be three stations, as well as a short pedestrian tunnel.)
The contract posted on the LVCVA website projects an operating capacity of 4,400 passengers per hour using “autonomous electric vehicles at high speeds,” which might include a Tesla Model X or Model 3, or another Tesla chassis converted into a 16-passenger shuttle, Steve Hill, the CEO of the LVCVA, said in March.
This is not the futuristic system of electric car-sleds that Musk once proposed for Los Angeles and Chicago, let alone a frictionless hyperloop. Instead, Las Vegas is getting a permutation of two well-known existing technologies: 1) cars, and 2) tunnels. (Asked to explain his scaled-back ambitions on Twitter, Musk responded: “This is simple and just works.”)
Remove the mercurial inventor-tycoon from the equation, and you’ve got a fairly rudimentary project. “Congratulations to The Boring Company for proving dedicated rights of way are important for speedy transportation, something transportation planners figured out roughly two centuries ago,” wrote Jalopnik’s Aaron Gordon (also a CityLab contributor). “I’m afraid for how many tunnels they’ll have to dig before they likewise acknowledge the validity of induced demand.”
Musk claims that his Boring Company does innovate in one very important way: It is capable of digging tunnels cheaper than just about anyone else. In December, Boring introduced its first 1.14-mile prototype tunnel in Southern California, which it said cost $10 million to build. That is a fraction of the cost of most tunneling projects in the U.S., but likely because of its size. (The proposed tunnels will have far lower clearance than most of the state’s highway underpasses.)
At its current scope, Musk’s loop—which would open in early 2021, in conjunction with a new wing of the LVCC—is expected to shorten what is current a 15-minute walk across the campus to a whizzy one-minute ride. At the earlier announcement in March, project leaders said that the tunnels might eventually connect to McCarran International Airport and several casinos, cutting through the famously jammed Strip. (Sitting in an hour of surface traffic from a hotel one or two miles away is rite of passage for many a CES conventioneer.) But with such low per-vehicle occupancy—in contrast to, say, a city bus with a dedicated lane—it’s hard to see such a system doing much to ease congestion.
That’s if it gets off the ground. Among the LVCVA board members who voted on whether to award the people-mover bid to the Boring Company, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman was the only one to say nay, citing concerns around safety and the company’s lack of experience. “The Boring Co. is 3 years old and has yet to deliver a final package on anything,” she wrote in a letter, according to the Las Vegas Sun. For example, the company’s scheme to build a high-speed airport connection in Chicago seems to have fizzled out with a new mayor in office. Progress on other proposed projects, including a Dodger Stadium connection in L.A. and a D.C.-to-Baltimore link, is slow going. The contract in Vegas stipulates that if the company doesn’t deliver its promises, LVCVA will get its money back, and then some.
Digging a $49 million electric-car-tunnel to avoid walking from one end of a convention center to the other might sound zany for other places, but it’s par for the course in Las Vegas, a city that is unusually open to building flashy new stuff and blowing it up later. In recent years, downtown Las Vegas has allowed limited tests of dozens of novel technologies in public rights-of-way, including self-driving shuttles, “smart” traffic lights and street lamps, and a range of surveillance technologies that detect sound, motion, and faces. As CityLab reported in February, these pilots are not necessarily preludes to a larger city-wide fix. Rather, they’re at least in part a marketing strategy: Las Vegas wants to burnish its brand as a technology hub, in the hopes that more businesses will set up shop there. Musk’s loop can easily be viewed in the same light.
So if the Boring Company’s proposal works in Sin City (and it should: It’s just a car in a tunnel), convention-goers could be the first in the world to ride it. And tech-y types might think of Las Vegas when they’re considering where to set up an office. If it fails, the city gets to say that it was fearlessly attempting something new—and at a very little cost. As a tourist amenity and development magnet, there’s nothing wrong with the LVCC Loop. Where trouble might start is if other cities see it as an actual public transportation solution. For all the above reasons, however, the odds on that wager would be pretty low.