Plans Offer a Peek Into Elon Musk’s Secret Tunnel in California, Including an Elevator Hidden in a Garage

October 23, 2018

By Laura J. Nelson

LOS ANGELES — When Elon Musk’s tunneling firm began digging in Hawthorne, Calif., last year, the construction site next to Space X headquarters was barely noticeable, sandwiched between a home improvement store and a parking garage.

The engineers at work on the Boring Co.’s tunnel, which now runs for a mile beneath city streets, have signaled that they intend to finish as they started: away from the public eye.

But documents submitted to city officials by Musk’s tunneling company offer a sneak peek at the company’s plans.

The most futuristic is a blueprint for a steel elevator shaft inside the garage of a shabby house near the Hawthorne Municipal Airport that would connect with the test tunnel 40 feet below.

“We’ll be completely contained within the garage,” Boring Co. employee Brett Horton told officials last month when the project received approval from the Hawthorne City Council. “You won’t be able to see or hear it.”

The structure would serve as a covert place for engineers to practice raising and lowering vehicles into the test tunnel, a key element of the transportation system known as “Loop.”

Musk envisions a transportation network where commuters in cars, on foot or on bicycles can board platforms the size of parking spaces, dotted across the city. The platforms, called “skates,” would sink through elevator shafts, merge seamlessly into the tunnel network and whisk riders to their destinations at speeds of up to 130 mph.

Musk said Sunday that the company’s first tunnel will open to the public in December with free rides for the public. If that happens, it will be the first chance many residents have to learn anything about the tunnel, where engineers have been honing their digging skills for a year.

The tunnel has been built quietly, with comparatively little noise, congestion — or public communication. Milestones have mostly popped up through Musk’s Twitter feed, sparking excitement from traffic-weary Angelenos and skepticism from locals about the project’s feasibility.

Transportation planners and officials say they worry about the system’s effect on traffic and whether Musk can deliver on his ambitious visions. As one example, critics say, the tunnel in Hawthorne is shorter than the two-mile route that city officials approved last year.

The route was truncated because a property “became available” where the company could extricate a piece of digging equipment known as a cutter head that otherwise would have been abandoned underground, company representative Jane Labanowski said at City Hall last month.

The company will haul the cutter head, a massive disk that functions like a drill bit, through a shaft in an industrial building on 120th Street near Prairie Avenue. The company bought the property for nearly $2 million earlier this year, state records show.

“We decided to shorten the tunnel because we wanted to reuse the cutter head,” Labanowski said. “We think it’s a much better move to shorten the tunnel.”

The blue-and-gray house on West 119th Place, where the elevator shaft would be built, sold for $485,000 in January to “Irma’s House,” a limited liability company owned by the Boring Co., according to local and state records.

Documents filed with the city of Hawthorne call for a bigger, sturdier garage along the house’s property line, near the tunnel’s path along 120th Street. A small spur would connect the tunnel to the elevator shaft in the garage, the plans said.

Hawthorne officials have said that there will be no signs on the well-kept street that one home’s garage conceals an entrance to a subterranean test track. The Boring Co. said the elevator will be quiet enough that the house can be rented to tenants.

The garage would be surrounded by security gates and surveillance cameras to prevent intruders, the company said, and the elevator platform will seal off the tunnel shaft when it’s not in use.

To keep the street from becoming a de facto loading zone, no vehicles will be allowed to enter or leave the garage, city officials said. Instead, all vehicles inside the test tunnel must enter and exit through the SpaceX construction site a mile east.

After the sale, the house was quiet for months. But security cameras were recently installed on the roof, and residents have received letters saying construction would start soon, said Carmen Ayala, 48, who lives across the street.

Some residents have been concerned about potential damage to their homes, Ayala said, but she is more optimistic.

“I actually feel proud,” she said. “We’re the first to have that tunnel.”

At a city meeting last month, Ayala’s neighbor Sammy Andrade told local officials that he and other residents “really, really want to know” how the company will prevent damage to their properties, “because it’s our families, and it’s our homes.”

Company officials have assured residents that tunneling is safe, and that they continually monitor the soil for signs of settling.

In a now-deleted Instagram post, Musk wrote earlier this year that the public will be able to take free rides through the Hawthorne tunnel in a few months, “pending final regulatory approvals.” Exactly how those regulatory approvals would work is not clear.

The Boring Co. did not return a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Cal/OSHA, the workplace safety agency that oversees tunneling, mining and amusement park rides, said her department had “nothing to do” with regulating the Hawthorne tunnel.

A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Authority said officials in Washington are providing “informal technical assistance,” but have not approved any new technology.

Musk’s progress in Hawthorne has gone more smoothly than his efforts to tunnel across the border in the city of Los Angeles.

His pitch to dig a 2.7-mile test tunnel beneath Sepulveda Boulevard stalled when two homeowners groups sued Los Angeles over the City Council public works committee’s decision to exempt the tunnel from environmental review. The move still needs a full council vote.

Musk has posted images online showing a spider web of possible tunnel routes across L.A., with proposed stations at the Getty Center, Dodger Stadium, Union Station and Los Angeles International Airport.

In August, Musk’s team proposed a 3.6-mile tunnel to Dodger Stadium from a Metro Red Line station in Los Feliz, Hollywood or Koreatown.

In a nod to the stalled Westside tunnel, the company said it “has made technical progress much faster than expected and has decided to make its first tunnel in Los Angeles an operational one,” rather than a test.


Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde contributed to this report.


©2018 Los Angeles Times

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