Column: Musk’s Dodger Stadium tunnel is another distraction from his most important task: Making cars
Here’s the biggest problem for the board of the electric car maker Tesla: Can anything make Elon Musk focus on the job of, you know, building cars?
Another Musk enterprise Wednesday joined the competition to distract the world from Musk’s consistent failure to meet his promises for Tesla auto production. This time it was the Boring Co., a tunneling firm, announcing a plan for a “high-speed, zero-emissions, underground public transportation system” to get fans to Dodger Stadium at a price of $1 per ticket.
The idea immediately garnered what sound like endorsements from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Dodgers Chief Financial Officer Tucker Kain.
For tunnels, you can have hundreds of lanes. There’s no real limit.
— Elon Musk
As my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian reported, Garcetti tweeted, “Always exciting to see innovative ideas like the proposed Dugout Loop...that could help ease congestion on our roads.” Kain also used the I-word: “We are always looking for innovative ways to make it easier for Dodgers fans to get to a game.” He said, “We are committed to working with our neighbors and fans as the project moves forward.”
Hold on. A few things about this.
First, to be fair, Musk himself wasn’t part of the announcement. That could be what passes for good news at Tesla, where questions are swirling about whether it has enough capital to make it safely into next year, whether it can consistently turn out the mass-market electric sedans it’s been promising, and whether those cars will be serviceable.
Musk did his part to distract Tesla from Job One by deciding last week to announce his intention to take Tesla private, a ridiculous idea that means he and the board have each had to hire their own lawyers and investment advisors to navigate the thickets of a proposed takeover.
Did I mention that the Securities and Exchange Commission reportedly has an active investigation into whether Musk’s announcement, made via Twitter, violated rules forbidding a company CEO from issuing misleading statements to the public? Where does “make cars” rank on the list of board and management concerns? Not in first place, that’s for sure.
Musk is an old pro at diverting the public’s attention. While supposedly focused on turning out Tesla’s Model 3, the mass-market sedan he’s been promising for years, he’s announced plans for electric semi-trucks and a sports car. Through the Boring Co., he’s been pushing the idea of underground mass transit projects.
Although he wasn’t part of the Dodger Stadium announcement, he’s been intimately involved in a similar proposal to build a 2.7-mile tunnel for commuters under Sepulveda Boulevard on the Westside of Los Angeles. As recently as May, he presided over a public meeting on that project in which he sounded like a visionary of the old style—back when the meaning of “visionary” was a person subject to hallucinations.
He said the tunnel could be built without residents overhead feeling any effects. He also said that the virtue of building mass transit underground is that tunnels are infinitely expandable: “For tunnels, you can have hundreds of lanes. There’s no real limit.” Actually, tunnels can be the most expensive portions per mile of any transportation infrastructure—just ask the builders of California’s high-speed rail project.
Already, community groups on the Westside have filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s plan to exempt the tunnel project from environmental review.
That brings us back to the Dodger Stadium tunnel. The Boring Co. says it would transport 1,400 fans to the stadium from any of three locations along the Metro Red Line subway route, eventually expanding to 2,800 fans per event. Dodger Stadium holds 56,000 people. The company says it estimates 250,000 customers per year, so if it’s charging $1 that’s $250,000 in revenue (or maybe $500,000 if it’s charging both ways).
Interestingly, the company isn’t offering a construction cost estimate. It says the whole thing can be built in 14 months, which sounds dubious on its face. Just give us the government permits and watch our dust, the company says. Thus far, all that the Boring Co. has built is a two-mile loop under the Hawthorne premises of Musk’s SpaceX company, a video of which was unveiled a few months ago.
What happens, by the way, if the Dodgers and the city decide finally to build a baseball stadium somewhere else, an idea that perennially resurfaces? Who will be using the Dugout Loop then?
So what about the enthusiasm of Garcetti and the Dodgers? Their comments appear to fall into the talk-is-cheap category. There’s no percentage in either the city or the team throwing cold water on this proposal, which comes equipped with its own cold water buckets. They’re not committing to anything, so why not praise the Boring Co.’s “innovative” idea and leave it at that. But it’s a little premature to set your dollars aside for this high-speed, zero-emissions, underground excursion to fantasyland.