Should LV dig Musk’s plans to tunnel tourists?

By: - March 11, 2019 5:52 am
elon's coming

Elon Musk, speaks at an unveiling event for The Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel in December in Hawthorne, California. (Photo by Robyn Beck-Pool/Getty Images)

A plan by a company owned in part by Elon Musk to someday move tourists up and down the Strip through a labyrinth of underground tunnels is unproven, has been rejected elsewhere and could be on a collision course with Southern Nevada’s already besieged public transit system.

On Tuesday, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority intends to vote whether to engage in negotiations with Musk’s Boring Company for a $33 million taxpayer-funded subway connecting the LVCVA’s growing campus.  

The vote could open the door for the Boring Company’s ultimate goal of tapping into the tourism transit market by extending the tunnels up and down the Strip and charging tourists somewhere between the cost of bus fare and a ride-share, says LVCVA chief Steve Hill.     

The proposal comes as the Regional Transportation Commission copes with Uber- and Lyft-induced cuts to bus revenue along its bread-and-butter Strip route.  

Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, who sits on the LVCVA board and headed up the committee that selected Boring, says he’s not concerned about the effects of yet another transportation network company (TNC) putting the brakes on public transit.

“I’m not concerned about Boring hurting the public transit system,” Brown says. “We at RTC need to decide what public transit looks like over the next generation because it’s not what it’s been the last 25 years.”

The LVCVA’s 2017 visitor profile survey confirms Brown’s assertion.  

About half of visitors surveyed used their own car to get around during their stay.

Of the other half:

  • 19 percent reported using a ride sharing service, up from 13 percent in 2016.
  • 29 percent reported taking a taxi, up from 26 percent in 2016.
  • 14 percent reported using a rental car, down from 16 percent in 2016. 
  • 15 percent said they took a hotel shuttle, up from 11 percent in 2014.
  • 11 percent say they rode the Monorail, down from 14 percent in 2016.
  • 13 percent reported taking a bus, which is similar to past results, according to the LVCVA.

But those who ride the bus are riding it less.  

“The Strip route has traditionally generated between $6 million and $7 million in profit, which subsidized the transit route around the valley,” says Brown. “We are in our third year of revenue decline, which for the first time will go below break even point.”

“If our ridership drops it’s our responsibility to reshape our service,” says RTC General Manager Tina Quigley. “If that means pulling back on the Strip routes, we’ll look at doing it.”

A cut in Strip routes could prove a significant hardship for thousands of workers who rely on the buses to get to and from work.

“What this means to me is we have to take a look forward at the role of public transit. Is it time to take a look at reinventing ourselves?” Quigley asks rhetorically.  

Disruption in the transportation industry has Quigley immersed in new developments in a variety of modalities — from autonomous vehicles such as that proposed by Boring to Jetson-like drone cabs.  

“Disrupt or be disrupted,” says Quigley. “We have to offer a service people want to use.  Increasingly that service is point-to-point and on demand. As a whole, and I mean the entire industry, we need to look at how we embrace this technology and apply it to public transit. I don’t believe in playing defense.”

Is there potential for a public-private partnership with the Boring company, should it pursue a project along the tourist corridor?

“Not that I know of,” says Quigley, adding its premature to discuss, since an expansion has not been officially proposed. “That would be appropriate if that company was interested, but at this point no one has approached us.”

With Hill citing the potential expansion at a recent news conference, a proposal to Clark County seems likely.

Is Brown contemplating a joint venture with Musk?  

“I think right now everyone is looking to make the right decision on the next generation technology, but this is not a cure-all, even if Boring is successful,” cautions Brown, declining to directly address the prospect of a joint venture. 

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom was unequivocal.

“It needs to be public all the way.  Anything beyond the Convention Center needs to be paid for and operated by the RTC.  No more monorails,” said Segerblom, referring to the Las Vegas Monorail, a private/public partnership.

Quigley says she’ll be monitoring the progress of the Boring project with LVCVA, should it be approved, adding she hopes it will be integrated with public transit.

But are TNCs a complement or competition to public transit?  

It’s a discussion going on among her colleagues nationally, who are grappling with the challenges of emerging private systems that cater to more affluent passengers while limiting options for the working poor.  

“While the ease and flexibility of using a service like Uber or Lyft clearly help riders who can afford it, it’s not clear how to extend those advantages to the poor, the elderly, or those with disabilities,” says a 2016 story in Wired.  

Critics fear TNCs, left to the whims of the market, will leave service gaps in less lucrative areas, eventually resulting in a lack of affordable options for the poor.  

Regulation of TNCs in Southern Nevada falls to the Clark County Commission. Brown says additional modes of mobility are inevitable, at least on the Strip.

“Ultimately on the Strip, and be it Boring or the next technology or new technology, inevitably we’re going to have to have additional mobility — expanded pedestrian bridges to European tram systems. Inevitably that’s going to come into play.”

“The issue with the Strip has always been the aesthetics and the cost involved,” says Brown, noting the Boring project addresses both issues. “The one curious thing about the Boring Company is the ability to create this system at far below market level cost.”    

The Boring Company, which has no people moving system currently in operation, was chosen from a field that included eight other contenders, including some with experience in transit operations.  

“What they are proposing to do is at a very reasonable cost, opposed to traditional systems, and would certainly fit in as a pilot program for this technology,” said Brown. “This would be the first true test of the system for moving people.”

Boring’s offer to dig tunnels beneath that city fell apart, and a project planned for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is in peril, given the disapproval of both candidates in the mayoral race.

“Tunneling is complicated. It can bog down amid concerns over oil or natural gas pockets and changing geology,” said a 2018 story in USA Today. “Except for its 6,000-foot tunnel, the Boring Co. has no track record and is yet to employ the technologies that it hopes will cut the costs of cutting through the earth.”

“Were not going to be in the position where we’re the guinea pig,” said Brown.  “There are enough people in this world of mobility involved with the Convention Center and the committee. We have Bill Ham from MGM. He’s dealt with these type of transit systems. We have enough eyes and ears in creating this contract that we can clearly define our expectations and protect the public interest.”

And besides, what could go wrong with Elon Musk in the driver’s seat?

“I figure if he can send up one of these Space X vehicles and dock at the International Space Station, he’s probably done the right R and D for the Boring Company. I’m certainly hoping.”

Musk enjoys unofficial “favorite son” status in Nevada, where his Tesla Corporation is reaping $1.3 billion in tax breaks. Hill also shepherded that deal in his former job as executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Storey County, which provides the infrastructure for the company’s workers and families, will begin receiving taxes from Tesla five years from now when the ten-year term of abatement ends, per the agreement.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.