Elon Musk’s ‘Electric Skates’ to O’Hare Mired in Secrecy, Skepticism

The Better Government Association has filed a lawsuit against the city for disclosure of public records behind its $1 billion deal with Musk’s company.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to pull off the next Chicago engineering feat using tech billionaire Elon Musk’s idea, which includes technology never before used or even tested. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Before Chicago, billionaire Elon Musk sought to plant a futuristic tunnel transport under the streets of Culver City, California. The suburb on the western edge of Los Angeles balked because officials couldn’t get details about safety, environmental impacts and financing.

“They just want us to say ‘yes’ because we are dazzled by the glitter and the brightness of what they've accomplished in the past or who they are,” said Mayor Thomas Small. “If there is a way to move forward and if we see how it could work and it’s demonstrated it can work — the Elon Musk tunnel system — we would love to see it, but we have to be vigilant.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is undeterred, even though details about a similar system Musk proposes for Chicago appear every bit as murky.

In June, Emanuel and Musk appeared together to roll out their vision for a new underground express to whisk travelers over the roughly 15 miles from the Loop to O’Hare International Airport in 12 minutes. The plan would be fast-tracked with as-yet-untested digging equipment and a new electric rail system moving at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour.

The biggest questions center on Musk, the celebrity entrepreneur behind the electric car maker Tesla and the reusable rocket company SpaceX, who keeps burning through cash and project deadlines at both.

Just this month, after yet another in a string of huge quarterly losses at Tesla, Musk declared on Twitter he was thinking of taking the company private. The unconventional handling of the announcement drove a temporary spike in Tesla public stock prices, an inquiry into Musk’s behavior by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a shareholder lawsuit.

That followed another recent controversy when Musk unleashed an ugly Twitter rant after his motives were publicly questioned for trying to inject himself into the rescue of a boys soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand. He later apologized.

Enter Emanuel, who wants to pull off the next Chicago engineering feat using the visionary but mercurial businessman with a cool-factor fan base, a famously short fuse and a spotty record of accomplishment who touts technology never before used or even tested.

Musk has already dug one short tunnel beneath the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, but that was drilled using conventional sewer drilling technology — not the radical one he appears to have convinced Emanuel he can develop to make the process faster and cheaper.

Beyond the bold but vague visions outlined by Musk and Emanuel lies a plan mired in secrecy that some critics suggest defies a central tenet of effective public policy: Defining a clear need and attempting to satisfy it with something more solid than just an idea.

Emanuel’s administration has denied a request from the Better Government Association for public records detailing promises Musk and the city made to each other concerning the transport system. As a rationale for the rejection, the city said such records were “pre-decisional,” meaning no deal with Musk had been finalized even though Emanuel publicly declared it a done deal.

Both Musk and Emanuel declined to be interviewed for this report. The city offered no additional details in response to a list of questions by the BGA, which has filed a lawsuit against the city seeking to force it to make public the details of its arrangement with Musk.

But interviews and an examination of records from elsewhere concerning Musk’s various ventures paint a portrait of a man with an unbridled imagination who is often short on delivery.

Unanswered questions

So far at least, the plans of Musk and Emanuel have unearthed more questions than excavated soil. They include timing, liability, geological unknowns and even market demand for such a service to O’Hare, which already has a roughly 45-minute commuter train ride to the airport.

History is also a factor. High-speed rail plans have been floated and fizzled for decades in the U.S. — including Chicago, which has already spent more than $250 million under former Mayor Richard M. Daley on an underground super station in the Loop for an express train to O’Hare. The station was abandoned incomplete and work on the express never started.

That is hardly the only example of grand ideas that have burned Chicago taxpayers. Consider the privatization of the Chicago Skyway and the city’s parking meters, which generated big profits for private investors but left frustrated Chicagoans with rising rates.

A swirl of unresolved issues surrounds the city’s new partnership with Musk, who says he can start digging by year’s end and get the system, dubbed “X” by the mayor, up and running in as little as 18 months. Even the head of the Emanuel’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which helped green-light Musk’s venture, pegged a realistic timetable at four years.

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Renderings of The Boring Company's plan for a transportation system connecting O’Hare Airport and the Loop.

Then there is the question of cost. The price to build New York’s Second Avenue Subway was $2.5 billion-a-mile, and researchers say projects in Europe and Japan range from $100 million to $1 billion per mile.

Musk says he can dig a tunnel over the entire route from Chicago’s Loop to O’Hare — roughly 15 miles — for a mere $1 billion of his own money, sparing taxpayers all expense. In exchange, he wants to run the subway — something his companies have no experience doing — and pocket proceeds from tickets costing $20 to $25 apiece while also potentially keeping revenue from advertising and commercial real estate at transport terminals.

Another unknown is the value of the underground right-of-way the city seems prepared to grant to Musk for free. Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin said at the June news conference that it was worth little to nothing. “It is not land that anyone is using or is ever likely to use,” Rivkin said.

But what happens if Musk breaks water mains, runs into utility lines or finds hazardous materials as he digs? Would the city be left with a big hole in the ground and a big hole in its budget if Musk’s technology flops and his company does too?

What becomes of the mountain of soil that must be excavated to build the tunnel? Does it have a value? How much? Geologists and experts interviewed say Musk’s idea to repurpose it as bricks to shore up tunnel walls won’t work because Chicago dirt is not suitable.

“That’s pie in the sky,” said Stephen Guggenheim, a clay expert and an emeritus professor of geology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Emanuel dismissed skeptics when peppered with questions at the June announcement. “It’s easy to be a critic or a cynic,” the mayor said. “What jobs do they produce? What economic growth do they produce?”

Musk told the gathering that Chicago’s streamlined bureaucracy attracted him to the city, a pronouncement that elicited laughter from the assembled reporters gathered at a somewhat ironic location — that long abandoned subway station project beneath Block 37 in the heart of the Loop.

“One of the great things about Chicago is the number of approving authorities is small,” Musk said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about constructing a high speed transit tunnel with engineer and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Even some in Emanuel’s orbit have expressed doubts about the Musk project, among them Damon A. Silvers who serves as an advisory board member on the mayor’s hand-picked Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a non-profit group that is funded by taxpayers that helps to promote and advance Emanuel’s agenda.

"Does this firm really know how to operate a transit system?” said Silvers, also a policy director and lawyer for the AFL-CIO, at the Trust’s July board meeting. "They might know how to bore a big tunnel and they might know how to design the software of the vehicle, but that’s a very different thing than operating a transit system.”

Musk’s own history is dotted with controversy. His Tesla 3, promoted as an electric-car for the masses, has been mired in production blots and worker safety disputes. His rocket project to send humans to space is years behind schedule.

Broader vision

Musk’s broader vision is for a nationwide network of underground highways he calls “hyperloop.” It is detailed in a 58-page essay he posted online in 2013, complete with renderings, suggested routes, and plans for futuristic tunneling equipment to make the typically arduous and expensive process of digging faster and cheaper.

To that end, Musk created The Boring Company. In an interview last year, he downplayed Boring’s role in his empire of ideas, saying he dedicated only two or three percent of his time there and filled its ranks with interns and part timers.

“It’s kind of puttering along, but it’s making good progress,” he said of Boring during the interview.

Hyperloop would be an underground rail network that would lower automobiles and passengers together onto electric-powered platforms that could travel underground at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour. The Chicago transports he envisions would not be that ambitious, yet designed to one day connect to the nationwide network.

In Chicago, he said, automobiles would not be transported. Instead, the platforms would be equipped with windowed-commuter cars with seats for up to 16 passengers that could reach top speeds of 155 mph.

Musk brought his tunnel idea to Chicago via Southern California, where the Boring Company is headquartered.

Early this year, he proposed to build a 2.7- mile “proof of concept” tunnel below parts of Culver City and Los Angeles. But that plan ran afoul of politicians, neighborhood groups, and environmentalists. The tunnel was mothballed pending a lawsuit.

“The Boring Company seems to be pretty decent at public relations, but not at transparency,” said Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. “So it is hard to get information of what exactly the L.A. project is or will be.

“I’d be concerned if that lack of transparency extended to the Chicago project.”

Despite the pushback in L.A. and Culver City, he is building a two-mile long “test” tunnel originating underneath Musk’s SpaceX and Boring headquarters in the L.A. suburb of Hawthorne. To date, there is no public evidence Musk has developed, tested, or used the faster, cheaper tunnel-boring technology he claims he wants to use in Chicago.

“I feel very confident that the technologies that need to be solved here, while difficult and new, are significantly less difficult than say what we do at SpaceX or Tesla,” Musk said at the Emanuel news conference.

The Hawthorne tunnel — approved for depths as low as 44 feet below street level — was excavated with conventional boring equipment used previously to dig sewers.

In May, Musk posted on Instagram a video of the tunnel, saying it was near completion. It had taken the company a year to dig most of the two-mile tunnel. On that timeline, it would take Musk more than seven years to get from The Loop to O’Hare.

About the Author

Alejandra Cancino

Cancino is an investigative reporter at BGA. She worked at the Chicago Tribune from 2009 to 2015 as a business reporter covering manufacturing, economic development and labor. Her 2015 labor coverage earned a local award for best business and consumer reporting.