Could tunnels relieve Charlotte's traffic congestion?

City Council member floats idea of hiring Elon Musk to burrow beneath busy intersections and add roads: outside-the-box idea or harebrained scheme?

This article originally appeared in the March 17, 2021, issue of The Charlotte Ledger, a e-newsletter with original local news. Sign up today:

The Boring Co., founded by Elon Musk, is working on traffic tunnels in several U.S. cities. Could Charlotte be one of next ones? (Photo courtesy of The Boring Co.)

by Tony Mecia

Is Elon Musk the answer to fixing Charlotte’s traffic troubles?

At a City Council meeting this week, council member Tariq Bokhari suggested a novel approach to relieving congested Charlotte roads: enlist Musk to help build new streets underneath the city’s worst intersections.

Musk — best-known as CEO of Tesla and SpaceX — has another venture called The Boring Co., which is working to create new fast and inexpensive ways to dig tunnels. It has completed a test tunnel outside Los Angeles and has three other projects in permitting or construction. Miami and Fort Lauderdale have also expressed interest in using the tunneling technology to improve traffic.

On Monday night, Bokhari wondered aloud: Why not Charlotte?

During a discussion on traffic on Providence Road, Bokhari said:

I am in the process of trying to engage The Boring Co. to come and see things like tunneling. We have some ideas on the first-ever tunnel underpasses under some of our most congested intersections that I’m talking with CDOT [Charlotte Department of Transportation] about as well as The Boring Co. and others. This is the kind of thing we have to think about and infuse disruptive innovations into our approach, or we’re just going to keep having the same conversations over and over again.

Bokhari, a Republican who represents south Charlotte, told The Ledger he’s working to get a meeting with Musk. He said he raised the idea last week to Liz Babson, the director of Charlotte’s transportation department, as a “sanity check” and sent her a drawing of a possible intersection design he sketched on a napkin:

Responding to Bokhari in an email last week, Babson wrote: “The possibility offers an interesting approach that we’ve never explored. … We will continue to research this a bit more.” It also included points to consider such as tunnel size, utility lines and intersection design, according to the email, which Bokhari provided to The Ledger.

Bokhari said he interpreted Babson’s reply as validation that the tunnel idea is “not all that crazy, actually.”

Traffic and engineering experts The Ledger talked with on Tuesday said that any effort to dig tunnels beneath Charlotte intersections is fraught with engineering and design challenges.

Thorny issue: In addition, while it’s possible to make improvements that eliminate bottlenecks, there’s typically no easy solution to “solve” the problem of traffic congestion, says Billy Williams, director of N.C. State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education.

“We often look out and see that things are congested and want to propose those investments as ways to fix congestion,” he says. “Congestion is not something that we fix. It’s really a sign of economic activity: People that are commuting and going to school and going to work, they put up with that as part of the cost of being in certain areas.”

Mike Mooney, Grewcock Chair Professor of Underground Construction & Tunneling at the Colorado School of Mines, says tunneling tends to be more expensive than building roads at ground level or above ground. But traffic tunnels have the advantage of being quieter and less disruptive to surrounding areas than above-ground alternatives: “It makes a clear difference to a community.”

Tunnel-boring machine technology can dig underground without disrupting buildings or surface roads above it, he said.

The Boring Co. is working on several projects, in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Baltimore-Washington. They tend to involve small tunnels in which electric vehicles with self-driving technology, such as Teslas, can operate at high speeds. Miami’s mayor said last month he’s interested in working with Musk on a 2-mile tunnel beneath the Miami River. Miami transportation officials had estimated it would cost $1B and take 4 years to build, but Musk told the mayor he could do it for $30M in 6 months and that the tunnel would “solve traffic”:

Fort Lauderdale is also interested in working with Musk on a tunnel for commuter rail.

Concerns about Providence Road: The idea floated at Monday’s council meeting popped up as part of a larger discussion of traffic on Providence Road. Developer DRB Group is proposing 45 townhomes at the corner of Providence and Alexander roads, but neighbors worry about the cumulative effect on traffic of additional higher-density construction on the Providence Road corridor.

The developer said the townhomes would add only 96 car trips per day above what is now allowed under current zoning. But resident Chris Chotard said the proposal “makes everything prohibitively worse for the community.” A decision is expected in the next couple months.

Other leaders also weighed in:

  • Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said “We’ve got to start getting some solutions” to the problem of congestion on Providence.

  • Mayor Vi Lyles said: “We don’t have the money to do the congestion traffic management that we hoped. We’re working really hard on mobility to figure out how to move us around better.”

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN AdvisoryReporting intern: David Griffith