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‘Miami Loop’ Could Mean Work for Elon Musk’s Tunnel Company

City officials have said tunnels are a way to reduce congestion by moving commuters from surface roadways into underground electric shuttle vehicles, which could be less expensive to build than a traditional subway route.

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(TNS) — Miami is exploring the idea of building a network of compact underground tunnels where electric vehicles — perhaps one day without drivers — would move commuters around the county’s urban core.

The interest from City Hall in a “Miami Loop” could open the door for Elon Musk’s tunnel-building enterprise, The Boring Company, to propose a project.

Consultants recently completed a study of potential routes underneath the city, and Miami administrators are expected to meet soon with Miami-Dade County officials to discuss the possibility of a tunnel project that crosses multiple municipalities.

City officials see tunnels as a way to reduce congestion by moving commuters from surface roadways into underground electric shuttle vehicles, which also could be less expensive to build than a traditional subway route. But administrators say the tunnel system would only make a dent in reducing traffic if it pushed beyond city limits.

“The solution to traffic in South Florida is regional,” said Deputy City Manager Nzeribe “Zerry” Ihekwaba, who recently visited the Musk tunnel underneath the Las Vegas Convention Center. There, drivers are shuttling conventioneers across the center’s large campus in Tesla vehicles that move through paved roadways underground. Musk is also CEO of Tesla, Inc.

Ihekwaba said he was impressed with the system’s potential, especially if such tunnels could one day accommodate autonomous seven-passenger electric vehicles, and if the city were to open up competition among electric vehicle manufacturers to bid for running the system.

The Las Vegas City Council recently approved an expansion of the loop into downtown, a project that could start as early as 2023. Some riders of the convention center loop have given positive reviews, with one Autoweek writer comparing the trip to riding a taxi with no traffic lights to slow the car down. Others have criticized the concept as an attempt to reinvent the wheel, especially after a traffic jam formed during a convention in January.

Musk and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez informally discussed building a tunnel under the Brickell Avenue Bridge in early 2021. The concept of a tunnel under the Miami River has lingered for decades without any action because of the high price tag. Musk’s pitch to the mayor was that he could build a roughly two-mile tunnel for around $30 million in six months — a cheaper quote than the $900 million estimate generated by county transit leaders in 2018, with a four-year construction timeline.

The actual costs are unknown this early on, but Suarez and his administration have remained interested. The mayor came back from a Las Vegas trip last year with a considerably larger vision, and now city administrators are seriously looking at the possibilities. The city might pursue its own system that could allow electric vehicles — and not necessarily just Teslas, Ihekwaba said — to run on roadways 40 feet underground. City Manager Art Noriega said his hope is the city and the county would partner to write criteria for a public bid.

“There’s got to be some connectivity between whatever we physically put in place in the city and whatever the county does so that it’s more comprehensive,” Noriega said.

A county spokesperson confirmed the city and county will soon meet, but the discussions will be very preliminary.

The Boring Company, which did not respond to the Miami Herald’s requests for comment, has had “ongoing discussions” with the city, Suarez said. The company could submit a proposal before a public bid, which could trigger a solicitation and push the city and county to consider a plan together. Such a proposal would represent a major play for a firm that has already made moves in other South Florida cities.

In North Miami Beach, City Manager Arthur “Duke” Sorey said the city is still in the preliminary stages of reviewing a Boring Company proposal submitted in February to develop a 6.2-mile tunnel for Tesla vehicles to ferry passengers underneath State Road 826 East from Northwest 2nd Avenue to Northeast 35th Avenue. The route would go beneath Hard Rock Stadium and Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus.

Fort Lauderdale’s commission recently agreed to pay Musk $375,000 to study the feasibility of tunnels underneath the city. Though some commissioners consider the idea far-fetched and argued the city shouldn’t be paying for a wealthy tycoon’s company to do the research, a majority led by Mayor Dean Trantalis said the study was a “baby step” before making any major decisions.

The city of Miami has already started taking its own small steps.

A draft study, provided to commissioners this month, shows the city has started to look at what it would take to construct up to 29 miles of underground roadways that could be built for electric vehicle shuttles. The document outlines potential routes and stations, and consultants evaluated which routes could attract the most riders who use public transportation.

According to the consultants’ criteria, tunnels running from the airport to downtown and Wynwood, from Brickell to the east edge of Coral Gables, and underneath the Miami River to connect Brickell to downtown, are among the top-rated potential routes.

Suarez described the study as “an initial sketch” of what a tunnel system could look like. The study is preliminary — there’s no cost estimate, and consultants cautioned that before boring for tunnels or subterranean stations, planners would need to better understand the conditions underground. Unmapped utility lines and a mixture of hard and soft soils can “create serious problems.”

“There are a variety of stakeholders, right-of-way issues, feasibility issues that would need to be examined,” Suarez said.

Ihekwaba pointed to other significant hurdles. Tunnels would need to be waterproof and stations protected from rain and flooding in an area where tidal flooding is expected to worsen.

Ihekwaba said despite the engineering challenges, the idea at least merits a conversation with the county. He said a regional public-private partnership on a “futuristic” transit technology could bring some relief to South Florida’s traffic problems.

“I think this is a bold step,” he said.

The city paid $40,000 for the study to WSP USA, an established county consulting firm and one of several engineering firms in a pool of companies on standby to do city work. The same consultant generated a broader tunnel feasibility study for the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization, which has board members from cities across Miami-Dade and is responsible for prioritizing federal transit dollars that come to the county.

©2022 Miami Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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