The Boring Company’s “Loop” tunnel system, which would whisk riders along at speeds up to 150mph, would be built with capacity to move just 1,000 people per direction per day between DC and Baltimore, according to a new environmental assessment document released on the project’s website. The company hopes to build the project within two years once it starts. Trips would take just 15 minutes from one end to the other.
Here are renderings of what TBC thinks its stations would look like (Left: Baltimore, Right: DC) pic.twitter.com/WkFD3PUcye— Stephen Repetski (@srepetsk) April 18, 2019
Boring announced back in 2017 that it wanted to build a “Hyperloop” tunnel between DC and Baltimore. It would be part of a larger project extending up to New York City which would cut the current nearly-three-hour train ride from DC to NYC down to just half an hour. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan tweeted his support of the project at the time, saying his administration was ready “to support The Boring Company to bring rapid electric transportation to Maryland.”
The environmental assessment released this week is the next step in the federally-mandated process projects go through before construction can begin, ensuring no or minimal adverse impacts to things like the environment, water, animals, and vegetation. (Alas, “verbal govt approval” won't cut it.)
Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017
The Loop system, which Boring hopes to operate between DC and Baltimore, has changed a bit since the original announcement. The company isn’t calling it a Hyperloop tunnel anymore, but rather Hyperloop-compatible. “Hyperloop is an ultra-high-speed public transportation system in which passengers would be transported in autonomous electric pods traveling at 600+ miles per hour in a pressurized cabin,” says the company website.
The Loop system it's moving forward with has an advertised top speed of 150 miles per hour. Passengers would travel in rubber-wheeled vehicles.
Riders of the system would travel between DC and Baltimore in “Autonomous Electric Vehicles” (AEVs)—likely modified Tesla vehicles—running through a pair of 35-mile-long tunnels. The company’s DC station would be built at 55 New York Ave, several blocks west of the NoMa Metro station, and the one in Baltimore would be built in parking lot A just south of the Camden Yards baseball stadium.
This would be funny, if it weren't so absurd. At a time when Maryland should be doubling down on MARC & light rail expansion, we're wasting precious resources on “hyperloop”. More highway lobby corruption. Utter nonsense. #FiddlingWhileRomeBurns https://t.co/2jd8HYm19O— Del. Robbyn Lewis (@RobbynLewis46th) April 18, 2019
Passengers taking the system would hop into an AEV at either station; the vehicle would then “accelerate into a ‘spur,’…like a freeway on-ramp, before quickly merging into the Main Artery Tunnel.” The company says a central control system would manage the cars in the tunnels.
The twin 14-foot-diameter “Main Artery Tunnels” between the two cities would run typically beneath public land, which Boring says would mean no businesses nor residences would have to move or be bought out during construction or once it’s complete. The project would follow New York Avenue NE in DC, cut under the Baltimore-Washington Parkway up to Baltimore, and then follow MD-295 and go under Russel Street into Baltimore to the baseball stadium.
Boring notes that only these two stations are planned as part of this project. “Loop enables future expansion opportunities to communities along the proposed tunnel alignment. Potential future expansions are not currently planned, and would require separate environmental reviews.”
70 ventilation shafts would have to be dug along the project as well, both to provide fresh air and to serve as emergency egress routes to passengers of the system. Boring says the “exact locations of the ventilation shafts are unknown at this time” but it believes they would be located within 300 feet of the main tunnels.
Boring Co's DC terminus map. They appear to want to tunnel under WMATA, Amtrak, and CSX tracks. pic.twitter.com/4dMik35hZj— Stephen Repetski (@srepetsk) April 18, 2019
By using its own autonomous electric vehicles, Boring eliminates (for now) the use of private vehicles in the tunnels, electric or otherwise. “Use of the Loop System would prioritize pedestrians and cyclists,” the environmental assessment says. The autonomous vehicles would be stored by Boring's “above or below-ground near the Loop station locations or in Maintenance Terminals.”
The stations themselves are described to look fairly bland, consisting of “platforms sitting at-grade when not in use, resembling existing ground finishing (e.g., sidewalk, driveways).” Passengers could potentially hop into an AEV at the station “if the Loop Station were ramped,” or take a personal elevator down to the system’s tunnel level where they could get on the AEV there.
Taking the Loop from DC to Baltimore would be cheap, if the company’s analysis is accurate. Boring says tickets—which you would book through a mobile app—would “be comparable to public transportation.” One-way tickets for MARC regional rail between the two cities is $8; Amtrak ticket prices vary but can be as low as $19 for the Regional or upwards of $80 for the Acela.
Due diligence in Boring Co's EA means they list their competitor transit modes between DC and Baltimore, which they say include regularly-scheduled bus and rail service that are “inexpensive, reliable” and “frequent” for a cost starting at $8. pic.twitter.com/dnslTrkiJY— Stephen Repetski (@srepetsk) April 18, 2019
The devil is in the details
The combination of competitive fares and a daily cap of 2,000 riders limits Boring’s ability to draw a profit from this venture, which Boring says will be “100% privately funded” by them. The company could generate $58.4 million annual revenue with tickets sold at $80, which a subset of travelers may be willing to do.
But with station attendants, routine maintenance and upkeep costs, bills, construction, and other costs, profit would be a long way in the future for the initial segment of what Boring hopes is a larger system from DC to New York. Musk has said Boring’s tunneling costs are $10 million per mile. That's significantly lower than other major recent tunneling construction, but would still generate a $700 million construction bill just to build the two tunnels.
Financial forecasting is not part of the required environmental assessment report that Boring released.
Competition is good
Speaking of competitors, Boring has several to contend with. MARC, Maryland’s regional rail system, runs 30 trains from Baltimore into DC every weekday and again back out on the Penn Line, and 10 trains daily peak-period trips on the Camden Line. MARC’s Bombardier bi-level coach railcars can hold between 127 and 142 passengers per car.
Other competitors include Amtrak, which runs numerous Northeast Regional and Acela trains from DC north to further points including Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston, and various private bus companies.
Boring says the Loop system’s capacity limit of 1,000 riders per direction per day is “due to limited size of the Washington, DC Loop Station location,” according to its environmental assessment. In comparison, MARC’s Camden line logs about 4,500 boardings each weekday, and its Penn Line averages over 25,000 boardings each weekday. Both lines include a number of intermediate stops.
For its part, Boring says “Future expansion may accommodate more than 100,000 passengers per day per direction when considering trips to future immediate stations.”
The project is now in a 45-day public comment period, one of the many steps in the process before digging could begin on a project of this nature. Existing transit and vehicle trip data between DC and Baltimore do indicate a healthy appetite for additional capacity, but at what cost?