The internet has been abuzz with Elon Musk’s recent proclamation that he will dig a tunnel under the 405 (the busiest freeway in the US) to ease his brutal commute from Bel Air to Hawthorne. While most writers, even ours, are as knowledgable about boring tunnels as Elon is, there are some folks in LA who know all there is to know on boring tunnels, and thanks to the wise voters of Los Angeles, they’re spending our sales tax dollars making traffic a thing of the past.
I spoke with Metro LA’s Dave Sotero, who gave me all the dirt on digging under LA, particularly under the Sepulveda Pass. This story explains a bit more about mass transit in LA, with a nifty gif of her present and future rail lines. The black one includes the tunnel Elon and 330,000 other people want.
G2: So I take it you’ve heard that Elon Musk wants to dig a tunnel under the 405 to make his commute easier. That can’t be cheap, even for a billionaire.
Dave: Thanks to Measure M, there will be more funding for this, but it’s still a very expensive proposal. 50% could come from federal funding if it meets federal criteria, like the purple line extension does.
G2: Can we even count on federal funding for anything that doesn’t support oil companies with the incoming administration?
Dave: This funding could potentially disappear under the incoming administration. Federal funding on transit has been dwindling over past years, causing a lot of other cities to struggle with maintenance costs. We are better funded than a lot of cities thanks to Measure R and now Measure M. (Both draw from sales taxes within LA county.)
G2: What is Metro’s master plan for the Sepulveda Pass? When will you begin building the tunnel Elon wants?
Dave: We haven’t yet begun the planning process for Sepulveda Pass. We’d like it to tie in with the Orange line extension and the Purple line extension. Our long term goals could possibly involve tunnels but would require partnership with private industry (ahem, Elon) because that would help it happen faster. There are many different ways to share construction, ownership, operation of a transportation facility. We have already received some unsolicited proposals that we’re considering.
If you build it, they will come
Dave also told me the most attractive option would be a tunnel which shares with cars, but that it would be cheaper to do a transit-only tunnel. As we learned from the 5-year, $1.1 billion project that widened the 405 to fit 15% more cars, there are now at least 15% more cars using it, so commute times are actually worse. So realistically, if a transit-only tunnel carried 20% of those people (say, to LAX, the hottest destination on the 405), then Elon wouldn’t even need to go underground to enjoy a faster commute.
Digging a tunnel that works for ICE vehicles is harder than digging one strictly for electric rail, just considering the ventilation problems alone. Ask anyone who’s commuted into Manhattan from New Jersey if they enjoy driving through the Lincoln Tunnel with the windows down.
Of course it’d probably be even cheaper to do an elevated rail line, but there’s no way these people would allow that. They barely allowed the freeway to be widened for a carpool lane! Dave also explained that it’s a 10 mile segment we’re talking about, which is a long way to dig a tunnel. Tunnels in LA tend to be shorter due to a lot of factors.
The Nikola Tesla Line
Some people may think it’s tacky to have corporate sponsorship naming rights of metro lines & stations, but come on. If it means a return to 1980 traffic volume by 2025, so what? Digging tunnels that meet earthquake safety code, under a city, is not cheap. So if you want to get to work faster, Elon, either consider a jetpack, or purchasing naming rights to the Metro line you and 330,000 others need most. This 2012 article suggests the same- private investment makes things happen a lot faster.