Elon Musk’s LA Traffic Tunnel Faces Uphill Regulatory Battle


When the traffic got tough, one tech titan started digging a car tunnel.

Elon Musk’s new tunneling company is scheduled to begin testing a new leg of operations this week with the installation of a car-lowering elevator into its prototype traffic tunnel. But the ground-digging technology appears to be developing faster than the company’s ability to clear local regulatory challenges.

Musk dreamed up the boring project while stuck in traffic last December in Los Angeles, a city infamous for congestion. He later said he imagines “electric sleds” moving people and cars through the tunnels like a high-speed toll road.

Musk’s digging venture, aptly named The Boring Company, aims to connect a web of Los Angeles area cities and neighborhoods with high-speed underground conduits to ease above-ground traffic congestion. But the founder of other high-tech transport companies, such as Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, said recently his 6-month old tunnel digging company faces more challenges in obtaining permits than creating the technology to jet cars, bikes and people at 125 miles per hour underground.

The company faces a slew of regulatory obstacles before and during tunnel construction, Neil Popowitz, founding partner at Freilich & Popowitz LLP in Los Angeles, told Bloomberg BNA. The Boring Company would not only need permission from the cities through which it passes, but also from individual property owners and any third parties that own mineral rights below the ground’s surface.

The project may also face state environmental impact study requirements, concerns about earthquake readiness, and potential litigation from parties worried about the risks of digging under populated areas or near oil and gas pockets, Popowitz said. Musk need look no further than LA’s own multi-decade subway construction process to see the potential for legal hang-ups, he said.

Musk announced in May the first leg of tunnel will extend from Los Angeles Airport to Culver City, Santa Monica and two city neighborhoods. Currently, the prototype tunnel begins under the SpaceX parking lot outside of LA.

A City of Los Angeles spokesperson said the company had not begun a formal permitting process. Two spokespeople from Culver City said the city has no information on the tunnel project. A spokesperson from Santa Monica did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Boring Company spokesperson declined to comment.

The idea has at least drawn some verbal support from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who said in June he’d “love to see with the new tunneling technology that people like Elon Musk are looking at whether we could have a quick direct route from LAX to Union Station,” referring to the city’s airport and main railway hub.