In a surprise turn of events, Elon Musk is being given a chance to pitch his futuristic "Loop" underground transit system for the long-planned Chicago airport link.
Even though he has never built a commercial-scale tunnel before, and his transport vision is still in the conceptual phase, his firm, The Boring Company, was one of two entities shortlisted this week to design, build, finance and operate the yet-uncosted O’Hare Express, which the city’s mayor believes can slash journey times to the airport in half.
The other party, of four originally in the frame, is O’Hare Xpress LLC, which includes UK consulting engineer Mott MacDonald and Scottish transport conglomerate First Transit, with financiers Meridiam, Antarctica Capital, and JLC Infrastructure.
Unlike the other interested parties, The Boring Company did not team up with financiers, engineers or contractors, but entered the race on its own.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on 21 March the selection of these two teams to respond to a Request for Proposals (RFP) to be issued today by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT).
The project envisions an express commuter service from downtown to O’Hare International Airport in 20 minutes. The nature of the service, including whether it is above or below ground, has been left to the bidders.
The chosen developer will have to finance the project itself, and recoup costs from fares or advertising.
Musk started The Boring Company in December 2016 with an ambitious goal to cut the cost of tunnelling to a tenth of what it is now (about a billion dollars a mile, he says), while dramatically ramping up the speed of tunnel construction.
Ironically named "Godot", this Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) has been spotted on The Boring Company’s premises in California (The Boring Company)
Cheaper, faster tunnels would be necessary for his vision of "3D" urban transport, called Loop, in which the problem of surface gridlock is solved by deep, interlocking tunnel networks through which autonomous electric vehicles called "skates" travel at up to 150mph.
"Today, we have two teams that have the ability to get the job done and create an express connection between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport without a taxpayer subsidy," the mayor said.
"Of the submissions received, these two teams represent the best potential partners to deliver this express service," added Chicago Treasurer and CIT Chair Kurt Summers.
Musk himself, a disruptor in the fields of electric vehicles, commercial space flight and home battery packs, seemed less sure.
"Maybe there should be 2 providers for Chicago advanced transit. Monopolies are so boring…", he tweeted after the mayor’s announcement.
While Musk is working hard to get his Loop ideas applied in the real world – Maryland, the state, has granted The Boring Company permission for 10.1 miles of tunnel under the state-owned portion of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway – the company’s biggest achievement to date has been to sell 20,000 flamethrowers, in a publicity stunt earlier this year that raised $10m.
But there are signs he is serious. Current job openings at The Boring Company include "Senior Tunnel Design Engineer", "Safety and Reliability Engineer (Focused on Electric Skates)", and "TBM Operator and Mechanic".
Chicagoans will find out on 18 May, when responses to the RFP are due.
Top image: Inside Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (Wikimedia Commons)