It sounds like something out of the movie Back to the Future: What if you could hop into a self-driving Tesla in north Mecklenburg, speeding through a tunnel at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour, and arrive in Charlotte in about 15 minutes?
News management: This is not the plot of a science fiction film. Mecklenburg County officials met with The Boring Company, founded by Elon Musk, to discuss the idea last year, records obtained by Axios last week show.
Context: Local leaders have for years proposed building a Red Line commuter rail connecting Charlotte to Cornelius, Huntersville, Mooresville and Davidson. But that plan has stalled because Norfolk Southern is unwilling to share its tracks for the project.
Why it matters: Even if that’s far from reality, the talks show how far leaders are willing to go to bring transit connecting Charlotte and its northern suburbs amid a lack of progress on the Red Line.
Reality check: The Boring Company has yet to implement this idea. He completed only one open tunnel in Las Vegas at his convention center. But the vehicles aren’t autonomous, and they only travel about 30 miles per hour on a 1.6-mile loop.
Representatives for The Boring Company did not respond to a request for comment.
Details: The tunnel was supposedly cheaper and would have been built faster than a train, says Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox, who met with the company along with the mayors of Cornelius and Huntersville. According to documents sent after the meeting, the tunnel will cost $10 million per mile. The company claims its machines dig about a mile of tunnels every week.
- CATS does not have a price tag specifically for the Red Line. But the transit plan as a whole, which includes the Red Line, Silver Line and other projects, is estimated at $13.5 billion.
What they say: Knox said the idea was to use the right-of-way on Norfolk’s southbound “O” line (basically parallel to Interstate 77), which he said is about 50 feet on either side, for three underground tunnels: one , where the cars go to Charlotte, one where they go north of Charlotte, and one for service. And Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam tells me it could have extended to the airport.
But CATS and the city of Charlotte weren’t interested after talking to the mayors of the three cities, Knox says, citing potential issues like the right-of-way and environmental concerns. After that, the offer did not go anywhere.
- “I was really excited about it,” he says. “But as time went on, our dialogues just stopped because they lost steam after we couldn’t get Charlotte engaged … There’s no way three cities together with anything, about 200,000 people, we don’t have the budget or the finances or something to do it yourself.’
- In the end, given The Boring Company’s track record, Knox said he’s glad they stopped talking.
The other side: City spokesman Lawrence Corley confirmed that in April 2021, city officials, including former Charlotte Area Transit System CEO John Lewis, former City Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyoba, and Liz Babson, director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, met with representatives of the Boring Company to discuss Red line.
- The city requested more information on how the company’s approach could be applied to the Red Line because there were no examples of its use for similar projects, he said in an email.
- He wrote that there are many challenges in creating underground transit tunnels, including “environmental impact, avoiding or relocating underground communications, depth of tunnels in relation to distance to surface connections (the deeper the tunnel, the further away surface connections must be) and emergency access.”
- Ultimately, decisions on the Red Line would have to go through the Metropolitan Transit Commission, or MTC, he says.
But CATS did not say whether its officials had met with The Boring Company, only that “there may have been discussions with former CATS CEO John Lewis on the subject.”
- “CATS has not evaluated any tunnel concepts for transit services to northern Mecklenburg,” the statement said. “We are currently moving forward with the planning and design of the proposed Red Line commuter rail as directed by the MTC at the September 28, 2022 MTC meeting.”
Yes, but: Washam says it was an attractive concept, but it would need more study because it was so new, especially for federal funding. And ultimately, leaders had to decide where to focus their energies.
- “You can’t have two ways of trying to achieve what we need to achieve with mass transit in the region,” he says.
Between the lines: Last March, Charlotte City Councilman Tariq Bokhari made headlines and met with The Boring Company after proposing the idea of building tunnels under busy intersections to ease traffic. But the firm’s focus was on longer tunnels, and he said there wasn’t a good case for that at the time.
- The point of the talk, Bokhari tells me, was to think creatively about what transportation technology might look like in 20 years.
What’s next: CATS is spending $5 million to “advance” the Red Line, despite no timeline, agreement with Norfolk Southern or cost estimates, Axios’ Alex Sands reported. Even without these hurdles, the city still has no source of funding for its transit plan.
The bottom line: Futuristic concepts like autonomous tunnels may become the norm before the Red Line comes to life.