Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Elon Musk’s The Boring Company seeks to double the size of its Vegas Loop

by Earn Media

Elon Musk’s Boring Company is doubling down on its Vegas bet, with a proposal that would expand its underground transport system to 65 miles of tunnels below the streets of Sin City.

The proposed network map, which was recently filed with the city of Las Vegas and not previously reported, depicts dozens of tunnels criss-crossing the city to reach more casinos, retail zones, the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus and, for the first time, even residential areas. The proposed transit system is comprised of 69 stations and 65 miles of tunnels, according to planning documents, plus an unknown number of Tesla vehicles.

If successful, a Loop station would be located within a few blocks of almost anywhere in central Las Vegas. Five stations would serve the University of Nevada; and Allegiant Stadium — home to the Raiders NFL team — would get extra links to the west of the city. Harry Reid International Airport would have several stations surrounding it, although none actually serving the passenger terminal.

The system also plans to have a new tunnel running parallel to the Strip with few stations on it, possibly allowing for a high-speed “express” route between the north and south of the city. A similar artery connects east and west Las Vegas.

The proposed system is ambitious in just about every way.

Today, the entire Loop features about 70 Teslas serving five stations around two miles apart. It took nearly three years to build and was largely funded by a $52.5 million contract with the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). A sixth station is expected to open this summer. One Boring Company document claims that construction could begin this summer and be complete by February 2024, although it is not clear if this refers to the full system.

The Boring Company (TBC) now faces significant financial and logistical challenges in growing the Loop from a small campus people-mover to a financially self-sustaining, city-wide transit network.

Making Vegas a 15-minute city

Elon Musk’s The Boring Company seeks to double the size of its Vegas Loop

A portion of the proposed Loop network. Image credit: The Boring Company/city of Leas Vegas

TBC’s latest network map is impressive, and would put a Loop station within a few blocks of almost anywhere in central Las Vegas. Five stations would serve the University of Nevada, and Allegiant Stadium — home to the Raiders NFL team — would get extra links to the west of the city. Harry Reid airport would have several stations surrounding it, although none actually serving the passenger terminal.

The system also plans to have a new tunnel running parallel to the Strip with few stations on it, possibly allowing for a high-speed “express” route between the north and south of the city. A similar artery connects east and west Las Vegas.

These are ambitious plans, and the first potential challenge will be expanding the system from Clark County, home to the LVCC and many Strip casinos, north to the city of Las Vegas. Las Vegas has its own regulations and permitting process that TBC will have to negotiate, and there are signs that this is not going smoothly.

On March 8, a city engineer denied TBC’s initial structural engineering review for its proposed tunnels. TBC proposed a tunnel design that would allow buildings to be constructed safely above them, although only to a maximum of six stories. The engineer wrote that this was “NOT acceptable” to the city, which is planning further development in the area.

The engineer noted that TBC’s designs mix imperial and metric units, and reference design standards and building codes from abroad. “Regretfully, we do not use EU/Switzerland design codes/manuals,” wrote the engineer in a letter to TBC. “To one that has performed over 133,000 types of different reviews, it is impossible to simultaneously comply with all of the referenced [standards], many that are from other countries… It would be prudent practice [to] utilize codes, standards, referenced codes and design aids that have been used/developed in the USA.”

At one point, the engineer notes, TBC states that there is no US design code for tunnels. “But amazingly and few paragraphs below and on the same page, reference is made to US ‘code’ for tunnels. Needless to say, please correct statement in question,” he went on. The engineer also had concerns about TBC’s tunnels running close to the foundations of the iconic Strat tower, and the possibility of lithium ion battery fires within the system.

Building deeper or stronger tunnels to accommodate Las Vegas’s concerns would add expense to the project. Construction costs are not known, although Steve Davis, TBC’s CEO, did tell Las Vegas last year that stations would cost “between $1.5 and $20 million depending on the distance to the tunnel and [the] sub-station’s opulence.” Surface-level stations are the cheapest to build, and would seem to account for many of the expanded network’s new stops.

The city of Las Vegas did not provide a comment to TechCrunch, except to note that Loop construction had not yet commenced there.

Importantly, the Loop will receive no public funds for either construction or operation. This is almost unheard of in public transportation, where most systems in the United States and around the world rely on at least some public support. Instead, the Loop system will actually pay the city and Clark County a small fraction of its passenger revenues, ramping up as ridership increases. TBC raised $675 million in a Series C round last year.

How many riders?

Ridership figures for the Loop system to date have been unclear. Last June, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz told a City Council meeting that the Loop system at the Las Vegas Convention Center had seen over 700,000 riders since it opened a year before. However, data extracted by TechCrunch from detailed ridership reports, obtained from the LVCC under a public records request, indicate that the system had transported just 487,700 passengers between its opening date and the middle of July 2022.

Last week, The Boring Company announced that it had transported its one millionth passenger. The LVCC would not confirm that figure, and TBC did not respond to a request for comment.

Only a small minority of those rides — between the Resorts World casino and the LVCC — have been cash rides, with passengers paying $1.50 a trip. The rest, on the LVCC campus itself, were supported by payments that LVCC makes to TBC, which include both a fixed monthly payment and variable fees depending on how many vehicles TBC operates.

Figures for 2021, obtained through a public record request, show that the price paid per passenger trip at the Convention Center varied considerably depending on how busy the LVCC was. In November 2021, during the popular SEMA car show, the average payment per passenger was just $2.67. In September, a quieter month, the average cost for a 0.8-mile trip worked out at $23.72.

When fully operational, TBC says the Loop could serve up to 57,000 passengers an hour, with sample fares of between $6 and $12 per trip. However, the franchise agreements with Clark County and Las Vegas give TBC free reign to set whatever fares it decides.

Water worries and still no driverless cabs

TBC is now based on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, where the company has built a factory to develop new boring machines, and is constructing test tunnels. Last year, it requested permission to discharge up to 142,500 gallons of treated wastewater directly into the Colorado River. Locals seem to be against the move, filing nearly 200 protests ahead of a public meeting tonight.

“Don’t let a public resource become a private dumping ground so that a global elite can add to his profit margin,” wrote one resident this morning. TBC has reportedly already been served notice of two wastewater violations.

Whatever tech is being developed in Austin, it probably doesn’t involve self-driving vehicles. There is no mention in the new planning documents of the autonomous vehicles that Musk originally touted for its Loop system.

The human drivers of the Loop’s Tesla Model X and Y vehicles are a critical part of the safety and evacuation plans that Clark County approved for the initial LVCC Loop system. Part of their job is to assist passengers along roadways and into egress shafts should there be an emergency underground.

While that will inevitably add costs for TBC, it might reassure passengers unnerved by ongoing investigations into Tesla’s Autopilot technologies – as well giving time for drivers to tell riders all about their “great leader.”

Elon Musk’s The Boring Company seeks to double the size of its Vegas Loop by Kirsten Korosec originally published on TechCrunch

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