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Why one Florida city wants to build a two-mile tunnel to the beach

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Aug. 23, 2010 - Water taxi, lift bridge, Downtown, Fort Lauderdale, Broward County, Florida, USA (Credit Image: ?? Di Rosa, G/DPA via ZUMA Press)

Fort Lauderdale, Florida tourists may be just a few years away from arriving at the beach in a Tesla driven in a tunnel, provided that Elon Musk can deliver, even with Florida’s tricky geology.Local leaders are in talks with Elton’s Musk The Boring company to build a two-mile tunnel underground from downtown to the beach and offer rides for between $5-8.

Miami also appears to be considering using Musk’s company to dig a tunnel and divert car traffic from crowded surface streets. Mayor Francis Suarez said last month that Musk had told him a local project, previously priced at $1 billion, could be done for closer to $30 million, and finished in six months.

Then earlier this month he reported having a productive meeting with The Boring Company regarding “groundbreaking improvements” to transportation. Suarez has spoken of building a signature project for the world with the Boring Company. Projects could be done for about 1% of typical tunneling costs, according to estimates leaders say they’ve received from Musk’s Boring Company.

Florida has only two tunnel projects in the whole state, but Musk appears to have convinced state leaders to embrace them. Tunnels are generally considered an infrastructure choice of last resort, according to Brian Gettinger, who leads tunneling at the infrastructure company Freese and Nichols.”You see them where nothing else works because they’re generally more expensive,” Gettinger said.Tunneling technology has progressed significantly in the last generation, he said. Pressure is applied at the face of the new tunnel, preventing water and earth from flooding the excavation site. This has made tunneling viable in more places, according to Gettinger.

But Florida’s dry land — and the lack thereof — brings unique challenges for tunnel builders.

Florida’s limestone can make it harder to optimize a tunneling machine because there are natural holes in it, Gettinger said. Tunnel builders prefer when rock is solid, he said. It’s easy to customize a machine for consistent conditions, like solid rock or soil. Climate change also adds risk for tunnels, due to sea levels rising and tunnels potentially flooding.

In Malaysia, Gettinger said, tunnels have been specifically designed to manage flooding.Florida has high levels of groundwater and gets more rainfall than most states.Some of Florida’s limestone include underground aquifers, which need to be protected given potential impacts on groundwater, according to Greg Raines, global tunnel practice leader at Stantec. Sinkholes and settlement will also need to be controlled for in Florida, Raines said.These kinds of complications could impact tunneling costs. Florida’s unique challenges would make it very difficult to estimate tunneling costs, Raines said. The Port of Miami tunnels, which is nearly a mile, cost $1.1 billion and took four years to build. Tunneling costs worldwide have ranged from $175 million per mile to $3.5 billion per mile, Raines said.The Florida mayors declined to say if they would insist on any provisions in a contract related to cost overruns.

The Boring Company did not respond to requests for comment for this story.But the risks haven’t deterred Florida’s leaders, who see additional places tunnels might help.The Boring Company, which has yet to open a public project, will still have to prove it can deliver on the huge price drop. Musk has led breakthroughs at Tesla and SpaceX, but he’s also made a habit of missing deadlines and falling short of his projections.

Ross Moyo

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