Elon Musk Bullshitted His Way to a $1 Billion Chicago Airport Link

At least the city isn’t handing over public dollars

Paris Marx
Jun 18, 2018 · 5 min read
Mock-up of station at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. (Source: The Boring Company)

There isn’t a shred of evidence that Elon Musk has achieved the promise of low-cost tunneling on which he founded the Boring Company. He occasionally shares some videos and updates on social media, but there’s no proof he’s generated tunneling innovations that have not already been done elsewhere in the world. The often-fawning coverage gifted to him by the press has convinced people — establishment Democrats like Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and their supporters, in particular — that the addition of technology paired with Muskian flair can solve any problem — but it can’t.

Musk is currently dealing with the fallout from his overreliance on technology at Tesla, which has made it almost impossible for the company to hit its production goals, resulted in a rate of serious worker injuries 30 percent above the industry average, and generated $150 million in wasted parts to churn out fewer than 10,000 Model 3s. And now the long-promised $35,000 “mass-market” electric vehicle can’t even be produced at a profit — though, again, Musk promises it will… soon… maybe… he hopes.

That’s part of the problem with Musk that Emanuel seems to have ignored in choosing the Boring Company to build the link between Chicago O’Hare Airport and downtown, or decided wasn’t a big deal because the city wasn’t shelling out taxpayer money and it would look good to Emanuel’s base of centrist Democrats that buy into Silicon Valley’s lies.

Musk has a long history of overpromising and underdelivering, and the current problems at Tesla — which are threatening the survival of the company — are just one example. Musk never delivers on timelines he sets and his costings have been known to be completely out to lunch.

Musk is promising the whole project will cost less than $1 billion — that isn’t just the cost for tunneling, but also for the stations, the vehicles, and everything else. Yonah Freemark, an urbanist and PhD candidate in city planning at MIT, estimates that the two stations would cost $100 million each, a maintenace facility would cost $50 million, and that the project would need 61 vehicles at $500,000 apiece; leaving a maximum of $713 million for the 17 miles of tunnels — about $42 million per mile.

That’s incredibly low by US and international standards. Transportation writer Alon Levy has looked at construction costs across the world and found that in continental Europe and Japan, underground rail tends to cost between $200 million to $500 million per mile, but costs tend to be much higher in the United States, ranging from $600 million per mile in Seattle up to $2.6 billion per mile for New York City’s Second Avenue Subway. The lowest-cost project he cites is Madrid’s 2003 subway expansion, which came in at about $112 million per mile, still far above what Musk is proposing in Chicago.

Musk will see some savings from cutting out unions — he says he’ll use a mix of union and non-union labour — but that won’t account for the kind of savings he’s proposing. He’ll also still have to deal with regulations on planning and environmental assessments, making his musings about starting construction in three to four months and having it operational in 18 to 24 months very optimistic.

It’s worth remembering that what’s playing out in Chicago happened once before with Hyperloop. While Musk did not set out to build the Hyperloop system himself, he did put his proposal on the table, seemingly challenging California’s decision to pursue the proven high-speed rail technology with one he’d dreamed up and slapped a random price tag on.

The Boring Company’s capacity is far less than a conventional subway — 2,000 people per hour, or about the same as a single New York subway train —and Hyperloop’s was far less than high-speed rail: 3,360 people per direction per hour, compared to 12,000 for high-speed rail.

Musk also said that Hyperloop would cost $6 billion from San Francisco to Los Angeles — a fraction of the cost of high-speed rail — yet companies who set out to bring Musk’s fantasy to life have found that even building a 107-mile line through the Bay Area would cost double what Musk estimated for his original San Francisco to Los Angeles line — potentially even more per mile than high-speed rail.

Elon Musk is a modern-day con artist, and Rahm Emanuel is just the latest person to fall for his big promises, despite the growing evidence that he consistently fails to deliver on time and on budget. Musk has succeeded by playing the media to brand himself as one of those innovators who only comes along once a generation — it’s no wonder he tries to associate himself with Nikola Tesla — when, in fact, his companies often just throw a new-tech spin on existing industries, and rely heavily on billions in public subsidies to get off the ground. While the media is starting to catch on, the truth hasn’t yet reached establishment Democrats, who love basking in the aura of bullshit billionaires.

Make no mistake: the Boring Company’s airport link will not play out as Musk is promising. Emanuel may have made a bad move in choosing the Boring Company for the project, but he was at least forward-thinking enough not to grant them any public funds, meaning it will be private investors, not taxpayers, who will find themselves with a project that either goes off the rails, or is nothing like what was initially promised. But at least the Democrats will get to use their association with Musk in the election, right?

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically on tech, cities, and media, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter: http://bit.ly/radurb

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

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