High-Dollar Ride: San Antonio has reason to be skeptical about Elon Musk's proposed hyperloop

A top transportation expert said San Antonio could better address its traffic issues with less pricy options.

click to enlarge Members of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority discuss the proposal from Elon Musk's Boring Co. at a recent meeting. - Michael Karlis
Michael Karlis
Members of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority discuss the proposal from Elon Musk's Boring Co. at a recent meeting.

Billionaire Elon Musk last week made headlines with his offer to buy Twitter for $43 billion.

Although his $267.5 billion in wealth makes him the richest man in the world, questions swirl about whether the hostile takeover bid amounts to more than an effort to troll the platform. Musk doesn't have the required cash on hand, according to reports, and no bank has come forth willing to finance the deal.

The move is typical Musk: a high-profile grift for media attention. It's reminiscent of the billionaire's claim he was taking Tesla private for $420 a share — he didn't — or when he said he'd build an underground hyperloop in Las Vegas — a promise on which he overpromised and underdelivered.

But despite that history, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority last month approved further study of a proposal from Musk's Boring Co. to build underground tunnels connecting San Antonio International Airport to downtown — a hyperloop like Vegas' with a price tag of up to $289 million.

But experts question the need for that scheme, pointing out that it doesn't exactly fit the bill as a public transportation project. Public transportation works to connect people to sources of employment, essential services and reduce traffic congestion, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Although the Alamo RMA and Boring Co. both say traffic reduction is part of their mission, David Schrank, a senior research scientist at Texas A&M's Transportation Institute, questioned whether the proposed San Antonio Loop would have that result.

"Oftentimes, when building an express service, there's a reason for it, like congestion, which prohibits easy travel from the airport to downtown," Schrank said. "That's not necessarily the case with this corridor."

He added: "North of the airport, along [U.S. Highway] 281, there is congestion, some of it due to construction, but that's not the case here," Schrank said. "So, there's not that incentive to jump into that tunnel to avoid problems on the roadways."

How'd we get here?

Bexar County Commissioners Court created the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority as an independent government agency in 2003, whose purpose was to "address congestion and mobility concerns" throughout San Antonio. As Bexar County's Director of Public Works Renee Green said during an Alamo RMA Board meeting in March, the independent government agency was to be primarily funded by toll roads. The revenue from these toll roads would further finance other infrastructure projects.

Yet, in the Alamo RMA's 19-year existence, no local toll road has been constructed, forcing the agency to rely on vehicle registration fees to generate revenue.

"Even if we could build a toll road right now, there are no toll-viable projects," Alamo RMA Board Member Michael Lynd Jr. said during the March meeting. "In other words, there are no roads with enough demand that have increments of it that have not already been improved with state funds."

With hopes of generating additional revenue — and proving its own necessity — the Alamo RMA began inquiring in 2019 whether transit-industry leaders were interested in partnering on a public transportation infrastructure project. Specifically, the project that would connect the country's 46th busiest airport with a downtown that caters heavily to tourists.

Weighing the bids

Five entities bid on the project, offering up Buck Rogers plans that ranged from three-wheeled self-driving vehicles to an automated bus that would travel on elevated and underground tracks.

In the end, the Alamo RMA picked the Boring Co.'s plan to build two nine-mile-long tunnels in which passengers would be ferried from the airport to downtown in Teslas. Company officials said they could finish in just 36 months at a cost between $247 million and $289 million.

Better yet, Boring Co. told the Alamo RMA that the project would generate $25 million a year in revenue while not costing taxpayers a dime. Or so the story goes.

According to the Express-News, the Boring Co. would front between $27 million and $47 million for the first construction phase. The Alamo RMA would use ridership revenue to pay back its debt to the company.

Boring Co. also estimates the project would generate $25 million annually for the Alamo RMA, although it's difficult to see how that number is feasible.

About 7.4 million passengers fly out of San Antonio International Airport annually. If rides on the San Antonio loop cost $5 — cheaper than a ride-share service — then 67% of all travelers at SAT would need to use the San Antonio Loop to generate $25 million in revenue, excluding operating costs.

Newest attraction

There's certainly reason to be skeptical about Boring Co.'s promises. Remember that hyperloop Musk promised the city of Las Vegas?

Boring Co. also touted that project as a revenue-generating public transit project. The initial proposal for the loop floated in 2019 featured plans for electric autonomous public transit vehicles that would hold around 16 passengers each and travel on a track system through underground tunnels at speeds of 155 miles per hour.

None of that happened.

Gradually, the track was replaced with asphalt. Then, the electric people-movers were replaced with Teslas. Instead of self-automation, the vehicles were helmed by drivers, who are paid $17 an hour and barred from driving over 40 miles per hour.

In essence, the city of Las Vegas paid Musk $52.5 million — $12 million over budget — for what one Bloomberg columnist described as a 1.7 mile-long "Tesla amusement park ride."

Instead of a hyperloop that doesn't encourage ridership, Texas A&M Transportation Institute's Schrank suggested San Antonio consider less-expensive improvements like ensuring traffic lights effectively communicate with each other, metering entrance ramps and improving traveler information. All of which would likely be more effective in alleviating congestion.

But it remains to be seen how interested the Alamo RMA is in traffic mediation that doesn't yield big headlines and fill its coffers.

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Michael Karlis

Michael Karlis is a Staff Writer at the San Antonio Current. He is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., whose work has been featured in Salon, Alternet, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Orlando Weekly, NewsBreak, 420 Magazine and Mexico Travel Today. He reports primarily on breaking news, politics...

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