Elon Musk's vision for a tunnel network that could whisk people across Los Angeles County in minutes hints at a future where commuting in Southern California could be easier, or even seamless.
His company's efforts to fast-track construction for a tunnel where that technology could be tested has been relatively seamless, too — so far.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council's public works committee unanimously approved an environmental review exemption for a tunnel that could run 2.7 miles through West Los Angeles, providing a space for Musk's Boring Co. engineers to hone digging techniques and test their proposed transportation technology.
City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Joe Buscaino said they wanted to quickly approve any proposal that could help untangle L.A.'s infamous traffic. If the full City Council approves the California Environmental Quality Act exemption, it would shave months, or even years, off the Boring Co.'s construction time.
"We cannot continue an item that's going to delay innovation to our city," said Buscaino, whose district includes San Pedro, Harbor Gateway and the port of Los Angeles, where Musk plans to build a rocket to Mars.
But transportation advocates and transit riders have questioned whether the city is rushing through the exemption process for a new form of technology. Digging through one of Southern California's densest areas should require full analysis, they said, particularly for a project that will use untested technology in the public right of way, and could eventually carry passengers.
"This feels rushed. If the city doesn't grant an exception today, there's nothing stopping them from granting it three months from now, once they have more information," Marlon Boarnet, the chair of the USC urban planning department, said in an interview before the vote. "Rescinding something is much more difficult."
One concern, he said, is whether the test tunnel — and the eventual transportation network that Musk envisions across the county — could interfere with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plans to build a subway through the Sepulveda Pass.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Musk, Metro Chief Executive Phil Washington said state law gives the agency the authority to approve "all plans proposed for the design, construction, and implementation of public mass transit systems."
To address those concerns, the public works committee recommended Wednesday that the Boring Co. seek approval from Metro before digging can start.
A Boring Co. spokesman, who declined to be named, said the company believes the exemption is appropriate and that the tunnel will be used only for testing.
But there is a chance the route could someday carry passengers, if the company secures the proper permits, deputy city engineer Ted Allen told The Times.
The Boring Co. said employees would complete an environmental impact report and secure all the necessary permits before any passenger service could begin.
"There's pushback on just about every project, regardless of its validity," Koretz said in an interview. "I think they've taken enough steps and analysis to at least allow them to get into the earth from private property, and to begin digging."
At Wednesday's meeting at City Hall, Allen told City Council members that a 1,561-page memorandum prepared by a consultant for the Boring Co. found no foreseeable significant impacts from tunneling.
The tunnel's proposed route runs parallel to Sepulveda Boulevard, starting at Pico Boulevard in the city of Los Angeles and running as far south as Washington Boulevard in Culver City. The only entrance to the tunnel would be located in what is currently a lumber yard and welding area, the company said.
The tunnel would be 30 to 70 feet below ground, and would not have any stations along the way, which would help avoid major utility lines and other underground hazards that can slow or complicate construction, the company said.
The exemption the Boring Co. is pursuing, called a class 32 categorical exemption, allows developments to skip an environmental impact report if they can be built on less than five acres of land, using existing zoning laws, public services and utility lines.
A tunnel diameter of 12 feet, about half as wide as the typical Metro subway tunnel, would bring the project's total area just under the CEQA exemption size limit.
"The project almost seems tailor-made to shoehorn in," said Juan Matute, a UCLA lecturer in urban planning. "I never in my wildest dreams expected that anyone would propose to use this exemption for this project."
The Boring Co. has posted maps online showing potential tunnels to Sherman Oaks, Long Beach Airport, Santa Monica, Dodger Stadium and USC. Those plans could make it easier for opponents to challenge the Boring Co.'s CEQA exemption in court, Matute said, because the law does not allow developers to build segments of projects without studying the overall effect of any possible future network.
At the Wednesday committee meeting, Metro rider Robert Rieth, 58, of Sherman Oaks described the CEQA exemption as a "speed-to-market subsidy" that could provide an unfair advantage to the private sector, disadvantaging Metro.
"The last great public good, the ground beneath our feet, needs to be more responsibly managed than this giveaway," Rieth said.
The technology the Boring Co. is pursuing would be zero-emission, and could carry passengers through a network of tunnels at speeds of up to 130 mph.
A video released by the firm last year shows a driver steering onto a car-sized platform on the street, parallel to the curb. The platform sinks downward like an elevator, then whisks laterally through the tunnel. Pedestrians and cyclists could use the system by boarding a capsule that could carry eight to 16 people.
Last month, the city's Board of Building and Safety Commissioners approved the company's application to truck away 80,000 cubic yards of dirt from the excavation site, which could create up to 66 daily truck trips.
The Boring Co. said the disruptive work that residents associate with tunneling, including hauling dirt away, occurs largely at the surface. Tunneling itself is quiet, and often even imperceptible, because it occurs so far below ground.
The minimal noise would allow crews to work underground for up to 20 hours a day, finishing the 2.7-mile route in about nine months, consultants for the Boring Co. wrote in their memo to city engineering officials.