Culver City has lots of questions about Elon Musk’s superhighway under Sepulveda

By Andrew Dubbins

Representatives of The Boring Company addressed council members in front of a packed audience
Photo by Joe Piasecki

Mega-entrepreneur Elon Musk’s grand vision to tunnel commuter traffic under congested Los Angeles streets encountered its first reality check on Monday night: the democratizing public process of a city council meeting.

Musk’s playfully named The Boring Company wants to dig a transportation tunnel from Long Beach to Sherman Oaks, with various entry/exit points in between, “to alleviate soul-destroying traffic and augment public transit,” Jehn Balajadia, operations coordinator for The Boring Company, said during a public presentation to the Culver City City Council.

Both automobiles and 16-person mass transit pods would be whisked through the tunnel at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour on a system of wheeled electric platforms that could take passengers from Culver City to downtown Los Angeles in as little as four minutes, Balajadia said, or to Long Beach in 10.

But first the company wants to build a 6.5-mile proof of process tunnel from Westchester to Brentwood, which means cutting right across Culver City — albeit 28 feet underground — along the public right-of-way below Sepulveda Boulevard, the middle of the proposed line.

Clearly this isn’t your average development project, prompting Councilman Jim Clarke to ask what kind of public hearing process would apply to such a thing.

“We aren’t prepared to answer that this evening,” answered City Manager John Nachbar. “This is novel.”

After the presentation, Culver City residents voiced questions about safety, noise and other impacts.

“Culver City is under large-scale transportation siege,” said resident Marleen Pugach, referring to new LAX flightpaths sending lower and more frequent air traffic over Culver City. “I would feel much more comfortable if [The Boring Company’s] experiment happened somewhere else while we’re still working out the experiment in the sky.”

Balajadia said the tunnel would be earthquake-safe, that there would be no vibrations or other surface-level disruptions due to tunneling, and — most importantly — funded entirely by The Boring Company.

Speaker Alex Fisch worried that Culver City police and firefighters “may be the people who are called to respond in an exotic rescue situation without [the necessary] training,” and that in the event The Boring Company went under, “Who’s going to guard that hole in the ground?”

A company representative insisted bankruptcy is unlikely: “Primarily we’re being funded by Elon,” she said.

Culver City resident David Metzler wrote in to say he worried about traffic congestion at the tunnel’s entry and exit points.

“Unless utilization is kept intentionally low,” wrote Metzler, “it’s going to place a huge burden on the exit points — especially if it is transporting single-occupant cars.”

Which prompted a larger question: Just who is this tunnel really for?

Councilwoman Meghan Sahli-Wells was skeptical of privatizing public space for a concept that may ultimately encourage automobile use at the expense of existing public transportation infrastructure. The Boring Company’s web video animations of ritzy cars resembling Teslas (another Musk enterprise) being lowered into a slick network of tunnels, she said, gave her pause.

“It’s not just cost, it’s access. … I don’t trust a private company to watch out for equity, because I haven’t seen it happen,” said Sahli-Wells, prompting a roar of applause from the audience. “It looks super sexy, super easy — but it’s half-baked from a public [policy] perspective.”

Balajadia promised passenger fares for tunnel transit pods “will be comparable or less than any existing public transportation system,” but Sahli-Wells took additional issue with published statements by Musk that disparage Los Angeles public transportation and “unsavory characters” who utilize it.

“That means me,” said Sahli-Wells. “That means my family.”

In contrast to Sahli-Wells, the council’s other four members — all of them men — expressed more enthusiasm for Musk’s vision.

“It’s not the new technology we’re afraid of, it’s the old,” Councilman Göran Eriksson said, meaning we shouldn’t hold the failings of L.A.’s freeway system against Musk’s ideas.

That comment also drew loud applause, indicating mixed feelings in the room.

“TUN-nel, TUN-nel,” one male spectator chanted in the gallery.

Said Mayor Jeffrey Cooper: “My fear of the unknown — that I think many of the audience share — is still overcome by my excitement for the project and what it could potentially offer us. … I’m definitely interested in hearing more.”

But preparing for such a conversation will require “a rather monumental effort of [city] staff,” said Nachbar. “We’ll probably have to hire consultants to advise us.”

That prompted Cooper to ask whether The Boring Company would be willing to refund the city for what it spends on hiring outside experts to make sure the city covers its own interests in the deal.

“That would definitely be something that would be part of our discussions,” said Balajadia.

“Great,” said Cooper. “I appreciate that.”