Tag Archives: tunneling

the Hyper-tunnel

Amid all the talk of the Hyperloop, I have figured that the technology would be limited by the fact that digging tunnels is hard and expensive. It turns out, I somehow missed that Elon Musk has thrown his energy into tunneling technology too. I’m a little skeptical, but he certainly has a track record of success. I think he knows how to hire smart engineers to figure out the practical details, which is what engineers are good at, and then inject his companies with a heavy dose of big picture creative thinking and risk tolerance, which is what engineers are bad at.

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk says his ambitious tunnel-boring endeavor, aptly named The Boring Company, has officially started digging underneath Los Angeles. Musk announced the news on Twitter, where he said “Godot,” the Samuel Beckett-inspired name of the company’s tunnel boring machine, had completed the the first segment of a tunnel in the Southern California metropolis. Prior to today, it was unclear how long it would take Musk to convince the city to allow him to move the experimental effort beyond the SpaceX parking lot in Hawthorne.

Big Bertha

The problems for Seattle’s “Bertha” tunnel boring project are continuing according to the Seattle Times.

Tunnel-machine Bertha’s two-year breakdown will further delay the Highway 99 tunnel’s grand opening until 2019 and saddle Washington state with an estimated $223 million in cost overruns, lawmakers were told Thursday…

A 2019 opening would mark a full decade since former Gov. Chris Gregoire chose the deep-bore tunnel option and lawmakers approved the tunnel bill sponsored by then-Sen. Ed Murray, now Seattle mayor. Gregoire dismissed critics such as then-Mayor Mike McGinn, who warned that a clause in the bill put Seattle taxpayers at particular risk for paying for overruns…

The extra costs almost certainly would be paid by the state’s drivers in gas taxes, more transportation-fund debt, or by tolls and fees.

Tunneling is a key technology for the future of urban infrastructure. But the experience in Seattle illustrates the risk that the technology entails. It is one thing for state and federal governments to undertake this risk under the oversight of elected officials, and another for state and federal governments to put pressure on local governments and utilities to undertake these types of massive projects, as is common in the water quality and flooding arena. A tunneling project that goes well can indeed often reduce pollutant discharges or flooding at an attractive unit cost, but the costs can mount quickly when a project does not go well. Luckily, that happens only when we do not know in advance precisely what we are going to find underground every step of the way under a city that has been around for a couple hundred years (in other words, always). Tunneling is an alternative that should almost always be looked at. Green infrastructure should be looked at too and considered seriously on its merits as an engineering infrastructure technology that can have multiple benefits for the citizens, taxpayers and ratepayers of urban areas.

Swiss tunnel

It is actually possible to build major new infrastructure. At least, the Swiss can do it.

The Gotthard rail link has taken 20 years to build, and cost more than $12bn (£8.2bn). It will, the Swiss say, revolutionise Europe’s freight transport.

Plans for a better rail tunnel have been around since the 1940s, but it was not until 1992 that Swiss voters backed their government’s plan to build a new high-speed rail link through the Alps…

For 17 years, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, more than 2,000 people have worked on the tunnel. There have been accidents: nine tunnel miners have died.

Pretty amazing. What infrastructure projects will the U.S. public support starting today that will not be ready for a generation? Like I said, the Swiss can do it.

I think tunneling is a key technology for the future for everything from transportation to water management, and eventually space colonization. The technology has improved a lot since we dug the first subway systems with shovels in the late 1800s. Now we use massive tunnel boring machines like the one shown in this article. But it’s still hard and expensive enough with our current technology that it’s not often the first technology we go to.