Greg Griffin is intrigued by the Boring Co.’s proposal to build an underground transportation loop between San Antonio International Airport and downtown — and by the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority’s interest in the project.
Intrigued, but not necessarily in a good way.
Griffin, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has been talking with his graduate students about the Alamo RMA’s March 16 decision to try to work out a development agreement with the tunnel maker.
True, Griffin and his class don’t have much information about the project to go on.
The Alamo RMA and the Boring Co., which is is backed by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, so far have kept most of the plan’s details under wraps. Neither one has publicly addressed the route the loop would take from the airport to the center city, the potential environmental impact of all that boring or the right-of-way challenges with property owners.
The biggest looming question is also the most basic: Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars to shuttle tourists, conventioneers and businesspeople underground for a trip of less than 10 miles — one that usually takes fewer than 15 minutes on surface roads?
The stretch of U.S. 281 between the airport and downtown didn’t make the state’s list of top 100 most congested roadways.
Despite the lack of details, Griffin and his students have concerns — including ones centered on the Boring Co.’s ability to pull off such a large undertaking.
“What we do know is that the Boring Co.’s projects are not viable in other cities,” he said, referring to once-hailed plans that stalled in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., over the past five years.
Local officials wonder how Elon Musk’s tunnel company might benefit San Antonio and whether it makes economic sense.
Maja Hitij /Getty Images
The company was founded in 2016 and, to date, has completed one project: a $52 million, 1.7-mile transportation loop under the Las Vegas Convention Center. The company had to deal with a single property owner: the city of Las Vegas.
In October, however, it won approval from Las Vegas officials to move forward with building the Vegas Loop, a proposed 29-mile tunnel to carry tourists across the city.
The company is also currently looking to build projects in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The proposed airport-to-downtown loop in San Antonio, which would move visitors back and forth in emissions-less Teslas, would be significantly more complex and expensive than the Las Vegas Convention Center loop, which opened in June.
The plan could include a leg linking the Convention Center to the Pearl area on Broadway.
Drilling for dollars
The Austin-based tunneling firm estimates its proposed transportation loop here would cost between $247 million and $287 million. The Alamo RMA would cover most of the expense by selling revenue bonds, which would be repaid with revenue from passenger fares and possibly other sources. In other words, taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for bond payments.
The Boring Co. estimates the loop could bring in annual revenue of $25 million.
“At the end of the day … we’re going to need to have an outside third party do a revenue study and provide an opinion as to whether or not the projected revenue streams that are required to finance the project are achievable or not,” Alamo RMA Chairman Michael Lynd Jr. said.
“Ultimately, it’s got to be financeable,” added Lynd, CEO of real estate development firm Kairoi Residential. “As the RMA, we don’t have a bunch of money sitting in a bank account that we could throw at a project like this. So, ultimately, we’re looking to sell revenue bonds that are going to be supported by the project.”
The Boring Co. would kick in between $27 million and $45 million for the first phase of construction. If it completes a development agreement with the Alamo RMA, the company could start building the loop in 12 months, complete the first leg in 18 months and finish the entire project in 36 months.
To Griffin, it’s a question of priorities.
A modified Tesla Model X before an event to unveil the Boring Co.’s tunnel in Hawthorne, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. It unveiled the first mile-long stretch of the company’s underground vision of a transit system. (Robyn Beck/Pool via The New York Times)
ROBYN BECK /NYT
“There’s a lot of projects we could do for a quarter of a billion dollars,” he said. “For the same cost, you can build out an entire pedestrian and bicycle transportation system, you can improve sidewalks and streets, and create unique visible projects that connect major destinations.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look at the Boring Co.’s project, but we need to consider what the community wants.”
For their part, city officials took a pass on the project when the Boring Co. discussed it with them last summer, largely because of San Antonio’s bigger transit problems.
“We had an opportunity to explore the proposal last year and determined that this is not a priority for the City of San Antonio,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in an emailed statement. “We are always willing to consider innovative economic development opportunities, but our public transportation dollars should be focused on mass transit options.”
In addition to existing transportation options for visitors — including rental cars, shuttles, taxis and ride-share providers such as Lyft and Uber — VIA Metropolitan Transit plans to build an “advanced rapid transit” route that would connect the airport to downtown via San Pedro Avenue. As part of a $320 million, citywide system of rapid transit lanes, the route could begin operating in 2027.
The thing is, the Alamo RMA’s main objective with the Boring Co. plan isn’t to ease traffic burdens for visitors traveling either to the airport or downtown. The goal is to bring in more revenue so the agency can pay for roadway projects that will result in less congestion.
The Bexar County-created Alamo RMA’s main source of funding comes from vehicle registration fees. In 2020, the fees accounted for $15.7 million, or more than half of the RMA’s total revenue of $29 million.
RMAs in Austin, Dallas and Houston take in a lot of revenue from toll roads, in addition to vehicle registration fees. But toll projects proved to be too politically divisive in the San Antonio area — so there are none.
In 2019, the Alamo RMA formally invited companies to submit proposals for revenue-generating projects. The Boring Co. responded last summer with its transportation loop plan. After soliciting airport-to-downtown proposals from other groups, the RMA board voted 5-0 to begin negotiating a development agreement with the company, rejecting the projects of four other contenders.
“The RMA has been looking for big projects,” said Kevin Wolff, a former Bexar County commissioner who serves on VIA’s board of trustees. “Is this one? That’s the big question. It could be.”
He said he’s not opposed to an underground loop “as long as it’s the private sector that’s putting up the capital to do it.”
Local officials are curious about how Musk’s tunnel company might benefit San Antonio, one of the fastest-growing big cities in the U.S. But they’ve mostly remained noncommittal.
“The Musk name carries magic, and if he can fly up in the sky to space, he can dig a hole in the ground,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, adding he hadn’t been briefed on the plans. “But I have no idea whether it makes economic sense or not.”
The Boring Co. did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Kevin Wolff, the county judge’s son, wonders whether the proposed loop could be a test run to determine whether an underground loop between San Antonio and Austin would be feasible. Such a project — if it works as envisioned — potentially could allow visitors and commuters to bypass the often clogged I-35.
“The bigger scheme of things is some sort of mass transportation connection between us and Austin,” he said. “Could this be a proof-of-concept piece on behalf of the private sector? Could be. It’s the fastest-growing corridor in the entire United States. We are where Dallas and Fort Worth was 30 or 40 years ago.”
What about the water?
This undated conceptual drawing provided by tvs design/Design Las Vegas and The Boring Co. shows the entrance to the Las Vegas Convention Center Loop outside a new exhibition hall proposed for Las Vegas. (tvs design/Design Las Vegas/The Boring Company via AP)
At UTSA, Griffin’s students have been comparing what they know about the airport-to-downtown plans from both the Boring Co. and VIA. And they have questions about tunneling through the area’s karst topography, potentially boring into an underground system of caves.
They also wonder whether a tunnel could indirectly impact the Edwards Aquifer, which provides most of the drinking water for the city’s 1.4 million residents.
They’re not alone in raising concerns about environmental impacts.
“I have so many questions on the idea of tunneling,” said Amy Hardberger, director of the Center for Water Law and Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law. “Like, why? Can’t we just have better public transport at the surface?
“But the good news is that the aquifer is most sensitive north of town,” she said, referring to the aquifer’s recharge zone, where rain filters mostly through limestone into the Edwards.
Still, noting the drainage basins that carry water to the aquifer lie beneath the city, she said, “You might be conflicting with that if you’re not careful.”
Hardberger, who also serves as a San Antonio Water System trustee, said the project must be carefully reviewed for potential environmental impacts. Such studies stalled Boring Co. loop projects in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
“Let’s study it really well, so we don’t screw anything up accidentally,” she said.
What about right-of-way?
If the Boring Co. has proposed a specific route from the airport to the inner city, it hasn’t disclosed it to the public. So it’s impossible to say how much private property — as well as public property — the loop would transverse. But it’s safe to say that the more private property owners the company has to deal with, the thornier the project could become.
Emilio Longoria, an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law, said he’s not surprised the Boring Co. and the Alamo RMA have withheld details of the plan.
“There are many eminent domain issues implicated by the project,” said Longoria, who specializes in property law. “If they can’t negotiate with these landowners to purchase the rights to cross beneath their properties, they’re going to have to take it with eminent domain. Some of the landowners might be forced to host these tunnels underneath their property without their consent.”
He likened the potential project’s development to construction of an oil pipeline built beneath private land — work that’s preceded by environmental and technical surveys, and rounds of negotiations between the builder and landowners to determine a fair price for easements. If they can’t agree, the property can be condemned through eminent domain proceedings and used for the pipeline.
In Texas, owners have property rights to the space above the surface of their land and underground.
“That would include mineral rights,” Longoria said.
In Las Vegas, the Boring Co. dug the transportation loop about 40 feet beneath the surface. Do Texas property owners’ right extend that far down?
“Forty-feet deep is absolutely within that sphere of that ownership,” Longoria said. “Certainly within a realm of where a tunnel would be dug.”
Toll road by another name?
Griffin said he’s fascinated by Musk’s “aggressive approach” to finishing the projects.
Still, he doesn’t buy the futuristic hype surrounding the company. He doesn’t believe it’s proposing “a technically advanced transportation project” by offering passengers rides in Teslas through a tunnel in San Antonio.
“The geometry of the vehicle and the number of people you could put in the vehicle is the same as the Model T Ford,” Griffin said.
“Just because the Boring Co. is tied to Tesla doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily the best solution to moving people efficiently, comfortably and safely,” he added. “They made obvious advancements in electric vehicle battery technologies but not in solving any of the problems related to congestion fundamentally.
“This project is essentially an underground toll road. The community has said they don’t want to allow that type of project to be built. If a toll road is not OK, then why would this be?”
Kevin Wolff agreed.
“Would this be a type of toll? You bet it would,” he said. “It’s not going to be for free. It’s not going to be like a general-purpose lane.
“I doubt they’re going to let you take your own autonomous electric vehicle on it,” he added, laughing.