Some Thoughts on The Boring Company Dodgers Stadium Tunnel Proposal

Map of three Dodger skate-tunnel options - via Boring Company
Map of three Dodger skate-tunnel options - via Boring Company

Elon Musk’s The Boring Company has proposed a new “high speed” transportation tunnel project. TBC’s Dugout Loop would connect Dodger Stadium to the Metro Red Line.

In June, Musk’s TBC made headlines for its selection to build a skate-tunnel to the Chicago Airport. Though that project is receiving some criticism, I was hoping that it might be the place where TBC could work out kinks before they proceeded with anything substantive in Southern California.

The Dodger Dugout Loop tunnel would be approximately 3.6 miles long, ending next to either the Sunset, Santa Monica Blvd, or Beverly station. According to The Boring Company’s project website, the plan is for riders to pay “around $1” to ride “autonomous electric skates traveling at 125-150 miles per hour.” (Note: that’s fast, but in train terms it is not quite “high-speed,” which tends to apply to speeds above 160 mph.) Each of the electric skates “will carry between 8 and 16 passengers.”

The proposal has already received coverage at the L.A. TimesCurbed, Daily News, and The Eastsider. There is also an L.A. City webpage for the project’s environmental studies. Curbed already has a critique with an excellent list of better ways to make Dodger Stadium more accessible. I am not going to try to outline the whole proposal, but will point out some positives as well as some concerns I have.

Some positives of the proposal:

  • It’s a lot better than TBC’s last proposal for a dead-end proof-of-concept tunnel at a location where Metro already has funding and plans for a subway. This new proposal will have two ends, doesn’t conflict with lines already on Metro’s maps (and actually connects with lines on Metro’s maps), and doesn’t try to shoehorn a significant project into a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemption. TBC’s website implies that the Sepulveda test tunnel is no longer in the works. I’d like to think SBLA criticism scared them off, but it was probably the Westside homeowner lawsuit threats. In any case, I am happy that that project isn’t moving forward.
  • TBC is committing to an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), as required by CEQA. This process can be slow and imperfect, but it does mean that there is an accepted public forum for input and a process for adjusting the project to respond to concerns. The Dugout Loop’s EIR initial study is online. The first EIR public input meeting will be on August 28 from 6:15-9 p.m. at Dodger Stadium.
  • TBC states that they are working with Metro up front. When the earlier proposal came out, it sure felt like Boring was trying to use city approvals as an end run around Metro.
  • The project calls for a single tunnel in a setting where a single tunnel makes some sense. Stadium travel behavior means big crowds going one way at the start of the game, and big crowds going the other way after. A single tunnel can run one-way before and after the game. It gains capacity by running these cars one-way close together in the same direction – almost but not quite as high capacity as, say, a subway train. (The single tunnel has drawbacks. With no redundancy, if one skate tanks the whole system is down.)
  • Overall, I think this makes some sense as proof of concept. There is demand, but not demand that is easily met by one mode (whether bus, shuttle, aerial gondola, foot, etc.) With 80+ home games and more events each year, the TBC has the chance to operate with some downtime to troubleshoot issues that might arise.

Some negatives of the proposal:

  • If it was my money, or the public’s, there would be better ways to invest in access to the stadium than a tunnel or an aerial gondola (another privately-funded Dodgers transportation project that Metro is moving forward on). Curbed spells these out alternatives really well, but L.A. should really prioritize more space-efficient surface transportation, making buses, walking, and bicycling better and easier.
  • No, Mayor Garcetti, this won’t lessen notorious Dodgers game-day congestion. Latent demand will induce travel.
  • The capacity is not very high. I remember thinking that the planned Dodgers Stadium gondola capacity felt like a drop in the bucket – and its design capacity is 5,000 people per night. The stadium holds 56,000 people. TBC’s proposal would carry only 1,400 people “per event.” (Compare both of those to surface light rail Expo Line carrying 20,000+ people to Rams games.) Limited capacity probably means huge lines at each end – and plenty of space dedicated to a skate parking lot at each end, too.
  • I haven’t checked all the math on this, but the 125-150 mph speed seems to mean a lot of acceleration really quickly. For a 3.6 mile tunnel, the acceleration from zero to 150 would need to happen in 1.8 miles, because the second half of the trip would be decelerating back to zero. For 150 mph, this seems to be acceleration a bit less than a 747 airplane (they get to 184 mph in 1.75 miles.) It looks like speeds would need to be at the low end of that 125-150 mph range, or else riders might to need to be strapped down for acceleration/deceleration. No standing means less capacity per skate, so there’s a balance to strike.
  • Musk’s Boring Co hasn’t said it directly, but the economics seem unbelievable, so this project appears to be a big loss leader. Boring Co estimates 250,000 people will ride each year, and states that tickets are around $1. If that applies to all tickets (see below), then the annual income is around $250,000, which is probably not enough to pay cleaning staff. Operations will be largely automated, but it still seems to me that the line would operate at a loss (which doesn’t even account for construction costs). Some have speculated that maybe only the first few riders get in for $1, then others will pay higher “surge” pricing.
  • I keep thinking that the whole thing could fall through (fiscally or physically) after construction gets underway, then, in 30 years, the community decides it wants a subway and has to deal with an abandoned underground concrete tunnel structure in the way. TBC needs some kind of assurances (perhaps some kind of bond) that make it highly inadvisable to just leave a concrete tunnel underground.
  • Metro tunnels include plenty of expensive drainage features. This project would cross the historical Sacatela Creek (now a big underground storm drain) and the historic creek (also underground) that is now Glendale Boulevard/Echo Park. We cyclists know how hilly Sunset Boulevard is as it crosses all this drainages. TBC can flatten that out underground, but it will need some extensive engineering to avoid drainage issues.
  • There’s a double standard that I want to bring up. L.A. City appears poised to grease the skids for this shiny new thing in a way that they pretty much never do for transit riders. City councilmembers were practically falling all over themselves to approve the Boring Co’s dubious proposed test tunnel. At the same time, the city drags its heels on (sometimes gets in the way of) improving speeds for Metro’s Blue, Expo and Orange lines. I’d love to see the mayor and council show the same kind of enthusiasm for improving bus and transit speeds that they do for unproven Musk skate tech.

I want to like this new skate-tunnel proposal, but, for now, it feels like more of a pie-in-the-sky distraction from more pressing transportation and livability issues. I hope I am proved wrong.

What do you think readers?

  • SMG

    If it were going to be constructed, it should run from LA Union Station to Dodger Stadium, not from a Red Line-only station to DOdger Stadium. Not only is the former route a shorter distance, but it has a terminus at a regional hub where most Metro lines (and Metrolink) converge, negating the need for most riders to take multiple train lines just to reach the Loop system.

  • Well-balanced roundup

  • Matt

    They want to prove out the technology and that means getting up to speed (125mph). You can’t do that at Union Station. Plus Union Station has limited areas for a portal for this and many people can’t use it anyway (1,400 and more already use Dodger Stadium Express busses from LAUS). Union Station would overall not be a good fit for this. Also, the gondola up to DS will be in the Union Station area. It would be nice to have something West of the Stadium as the Union Station/Chinatown area already has options.

  • LazyReader

    Why spend money on dedicated transit to a stadium, For those that follow baseball, they have 162 games a season, They only have 81 home games, the rest of that they travel as visitors. That’s only 22% of the year the stadium is open so the tunnel is useless 77% of the time. Superbowl LI was called the Bowl of Buses, when some 70+ thousand people showed up to NRG Stadium, Houstons light rail was essentially useless, instead they shuttled hundreds of buses that picked up thousands of attendants. Now that the SEC is investigating musk’s claims of Tesla’s securing it’s private finances, it’s safe to say the struggling CEO’s who’s car company hasn’t made a profit in 8 years, calling Thai rescue workers pedophiles, goes on massive twitter rants he subsequently deletes, his physical appearance is becoming massively unkempt and the fact his companies are dependent on a massive amount of federal subsidies it’s safe to say he’s entering the Howard Hughes stage of his mental faculties.

  • Ben Phelps

    Feels weird saying it but I basically agree with you on this one.

  • MaxUtil

    I’m genuinely confused what the Boring Company’s game is here. They’re not dumb. They understand the economic, capacity, and regulatory issues at play on a project like this. I can understand some urge to pay for construction of a “proof-of-concept” project. But they know that once built this would cost 10’s of $millions to operate every year. I assume the “$1 fare” thing is just PR BS. But what would they have to charge per trip for this thing to just break even. Or are they fishing for big public subsidies once they get beyond the early planning stages and start the “Gee, we’d love to finish this but it’s just a bit trickier than we thought. Give us $1 billion and we won’t walk away” game?

    Or is all this talk supposed to support investor confidence in Musk’s various projects that need constant investment to cover their continual losses?

    It would be a real shame if all of Musk’s projects collapse because he really is doing some amazing things. But you have to wonder if it’s all teetering like a hi-tech pyramid…

  • Ben Phelps

    Musk’s customers are his investors. He doesn’t have single viable consumer-facing business

  • DarrellClarke

    Tesla delivered 60,952 battery-electric cars to consumers in the first seven months of 2018, and expect that to rise significantly now that Model 3 production has ramped up (and will be profitable). https://insideevs.com/u-s-plug-in-electric-vehicle-sales-surge-in-july/

  • David

    Hi Joe — thanks for the great summary. The Dodger Stadium project is a non-starter due to the economics, and it should be obvious to both TBC and the City’s leadership. Playing the devil’s advocate, let’s say each rider is willing to pay $20 instead of the proposed $1 per ride (after all, it costs between $15 and $40 to park at Dodger Stadium). The revised pricing yields $5 million per year, with a useful project life of 50 years, yields $250 million in gross revenue (which is more like $100 million when discounted to present value).

    It appears TBC’s proposal is for about five miles of tunnel, in comparison to Seattle’s viaduct replacement tunnel of two miles. I realize Seattle’s tunnel is much higher capacity, but digging is expensive and Seattle is looking at $4 billion. Simply looking at “orders of magnitude” the Dodger Stadium tunnel would be much more like a billion dollars than the $100 million in available funding. And the billion is just for construction — what about staffing, maintenance, repairs and a sinking fund for capital replacement? Those annual costs would certainly exceed the annual revenue, even at $20 per rider.

    Meanwhile, we have the state’s high speed rail project, originally sold to the voters 10 years ago as a $9 billion bond issue. Current project cost? $77 billion, with $100 billion a real possibility, and the service level will be much less than originally promised (and decades behind schedule). Also, the state assumed many private investors would jump in, but the numbers are ghastly, so there were no takers. The taxpayers will end up paying for the entire project.

    Elon Musk bet his company on the Model 3, and he should be devoting his full attention to that car, instead of pitching half-baked new projects every year.

  • SFnative74

    One tweak to the numbers: people rarely go to ballgames by themselves so each car has 2-5 passengers. Paying individually for a ticket through the tunnel could end up being significantly more at $20 per person vs $15-$40 per car. But time is money so if getting in and out is significantly quicker each way, who knows what people would be willing to pay.

  • Ben Phelps

    I have no doubt it’s POSSIBLE for Tesla to become profitable. But I’m increasingly skeptical … let them have a profitable quarter first then I will revise my opinion. For that to happen though, it’s because they are making cars for less money than they are selling them for (I mean, I’m going Junior High econ here). There’s no way that seems remotely possible with the tunneling plan proposed yesterday.

    I’ll leave my further criticisms of Musk and his business acumen for later. Maybe he’ll turn it around. But it’s not looking good.

  • Ben Phelps

    again, he needs to pitch these half-baked ideas to keep his brand up and lure in his true customers: investors. They are his only source of cash.

  • Sean Meredith

    It’s designed as a loss leader because they want a popular route that will get approved so they can show proof of concept. Why aren’t they designing stations and cars/skates that handle 50-100 people at a time? Because the whole thing is based on his original idea of putting his car on a skate and having private cars in tunnels to get around cities.

  • Ben Phelps

    Why stop there? You could just have a subway train and move a 1000 people at time…

  • Sean Meredith

    True. I haven’t put a lot of thought into balancing the costs/benefits for transport to entertainment venues. Also thinking McCourt wants to eventually develop his parking lots if parking demand goes down. If he developed housing there, these new transport ideas would give the develop a public transit waypoint. (Doesn’t getting Musk and McCourt collaborating sound like a win-win for the public good?) As much as I’m strongly against the cars on skates idea that created the Boring Co., it could be an interesting option to have small trains in nimble tunnels to places like the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium.

  • David

    Good point. I was relying on the article’s description that . . Each of the electric skates “will carry between 8 and 16 passengers.” I visualized the skate as a gondola car, only underground, and it would have to be enclosed in order to safely achieve speeds of 125-150 mph.

    Clearly, whether the fare is $1 per passenger or $20, the revenue would fall woefully short of the construction and operating costs.

  • Joe Linton

    I think it’s because they want to adapt Tesla technology – so it functions more like a car than a train. (I think that someone somewhere alluded to the economics of the car-skate don’t work as well as the people skate. Broad brush, you can charge 8-16 individuals more than what a driver wants to pay for a single car toll.)

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