Thursday, August 26, 2021

Gee, Does Anyone Know A Company That Bores Tunnels?

From the "well, I'll be" category, and courtesy of Ars Technica, we read that in an effort to overcome the hassles to their operation of working around road closure requirements, SpaceX has proposed building a tunnel to simplify things.  For those who didn't get my joke in the post title, Elon Musk also owns The Boring Company that, well, bores tunnels. 

As SpaceX has ramped up Starship testing and launch activities in South Texas in recent years, the company has more frequently sought the closure of the Boca Chica Highway. This two-lane road runs along the company's rocket assembly and launch facilities.

Residents of South Texas use the highway primarily to travel from Brownsville and nearby towns to Boca Chica Beach, the southernmost beach in Texas. When the road is closed, no one can access or remain on the beach.

This situation has become a logistical headache for SpaceX, which seeks road closures to move rocket hardware along the road and for tests and launches. It has also been unpleasant for nearby residents and those who enjoy the undeveloped beach.

Now, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has a potential solution. The Brownsville Herald reports that officials from Musk's The Boring Company met with Cameron County officials in July to discuss digging a tunnel from the south end of South Padre Island to the north end of Boca Chica Beach, facilitating alternate access to the barrier island.

The tunnel would serve a couple of purposes.  It would allow people in the area to still access Boca Chica Beach, but it would also probably reduce commuting times for SpaceX employees who live on South Padre Island and that area.  

The tunnel itself wouldn't be particularly long, but it would have to be deep.  The distance from South Padre island to Boca Chica beach is about a half mile, but it's under a shipping channel.  Now the Boring Company has only done one tunnel for hire, a 1.7-mile project in Las Vegas that cost $52 million.  I have no details on how that one compares to what's needed here.

As you might expect, a small county in south Texas didn't seem particularly interested in contracting to get a tunnel put in.  I imagine they said something along the lines of, "if you want a tunnel, pay for it yourself.  Cost of doing business.  Oh, and you'd better not do anything that would interfere with shipping in our port."

Boca Chica Highway with SpaceX's facilities in the distance.  Photo by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica, in August of 2020 when those facilities were quite a bit smaller than they are today.

Probably the most intriguing story in this week's Rocket Report. 


  1. They could also do an above ground 'tunnel' by building a concrete casement over the road and covering it with dirt.

    Build the casement segments on site, assemble them at night, cover, and do this in segments.

    It's doable.

    Of course, SpaceX would have to build a dedicated road from the production site to the launch site, which I am surprised they haven't done yet anyways, in order to stop road closures for moving big things, and that way they'd only have road closures when launching.

    1. The problem is they're working in an area that's at least 50% water. Average height above high tide is probably a foot, and if you look at it from the air, it looks like the top of a sponge in a tray of water. I'm honestly surprised they've gotten as far as they have without the EPA shutting them down screaming about wetlands.

      In a way, I'd like to see them over here (on the Cape), but (1) it's probably built up as much as it can be and (2) the independent folks who put up cameras to watch them - both Lab Padre, NASA and others - probably couldn't do that on a Space Force base.

    2. I have been " on the ground" at-near his Space-X site. ( Since it is a public road, if it is open, you can pull over and take a picture or walk around within a 100M or so of his facilities.) It is typical for the area. I am guessing the height to be 3-5 feet. It is SAND. Not really a wetlands at all( Or at least how I would think of wetlands).Or rather it is slightly marshy west of the launch area but not right along the road. On South Padre Island, esp the bay side and on up towards the north end ( of SPI ) there are indeed some marshy wetlands areas. A couple even try to be salt flats. You for sure cant bury anything a couple feet down very easily. There is some wetlands-Marshy area to the West of SpaceX . It might work to put an " alternate route" over there. Put pilings in to get it above the water-marshy areas. I bet that is a LOT cheaper than a tunnel and would be better for the actual residents who live mainly South of Boca Chica. Of course , that wouldnt show off his other companies tunnel making abilities. What the area really needs ( if anything) is the overpass type route I mentioned for Boca Chica and if you really want a tunnel build a tunnel from the mainland to South Padre Island. That would give them a backup way to get off the island ( The bridge has been knocked down at least once) and would give Elons company a high profile tunnel to and from an actual tourist destination.

    3. You raise some good points. When I think of the EPA calling it wetlands, I'm thinking of that ruling where they tried to declare even standing puddles as part of "the navigable waters of the United States" - the only waters they have authority over.

      As for the tunnel vs bridge, to borrow an idea, "when you have a tunnel boring machine everything looks like a place for a tunnel." I had to look up that the depth of the shipping channel there is 52 feet deep. How deep would the tunnel need to be? The top of the structure certainly can't be along the bottom, but is 100 feet right? 75? 150? It just raises a lot of questions.

      I think, in the big picture, Musk owns The Boring Company because boring underground is essential infrastructure for settling Mars. That company needs to learn a lot, too.

    4. Only thing I could think of to compare was the " Chunnel". It avg 50 ft below the ocean floor but in at least one place is 75ft. Using that as an estimate I would lean towards the higher figure of 75 ft. Hurricanes arent so common between England and France but have been known to hit the SPI-Brownsville area and storms like that can really shift the sand around. Good point about Elon's company needing to learn a lot too. I would love to see it work out. The launches attract the tourists and at least in Cameron County ( where Boca Chica is) Elon and SpaceX have been doing some public improvements. One of the biggest problems SpaceX has down there is conflicting public viewpoint. Boca Chica is either Garden of Eden ( S. Tex addition) or a cactus-rattlesnake hole to be avoided. Although there is similar vegetation for hundreds of miles some locals will never be happy no matter what SpaceX does as Eden is being spoiled by a Billionaire.

  2. Might be simpler, cheaper to just build a private road......

  3. Mr. Musk intends to get all the houses along that road by eminent domain and close the beach permanently. Do you doubt that he will succeed???

    1. Sounds like you're coming in at the end of a story and reading it how you like.

      First, I don't know that any of your statement is true, but if it is, it's a small part of a bigger story. SpaceX is obviously just a company and has no eminent domain powers, so that means it would be the county or the state that would have to be convinced to seize the property. The decision of whether or not to do that is not necessarily going to go the way you think because of added complexities. The activity at SpaceX is bringing tourism and interest to the area, which affects a lot more businesses than just SpaceX and the taxes every business collects affects the area a lot too. I wouldn't be too surprised if the government (whatever level) ruled to kick SpaceX out or to seize the houses.

      You do know that Musk tried to buy up Boca Chica Village for a couple of years, right? This is a summary of a Business Insider story behind a paywall. The homeowners refused. Their choice, so whatever they want is fine by me.

      Third, when they plan any sort of test that could blow up, SpaceX pays for hotel stays for village residents. That seems like being a good neighbor to me.

      It's a sticky situation, much like when the decided to make Cape Canaveral the big rocket launch facility on the east coast. IIRC, they let some private land use remain on Cape Canaveral. The Boca Chica home owners bought homes there for whatever reason and a neighbor that makes noise moved in. Unlike the situation where the guy moves in next door, builds up a car on blocks and works on the engine with no muffler, this neighbor makes noises 24/7, but offered to buy your house or put you up in a hotel if the noise gets too bad. I've had pain in the ass neighbors before and none ever offered to buy my place or put me up in a hotel while they partied or whatever.

      When I was growing up in Miami, they were putting in an I-95 interchange not far away and a guy refused to sell his property. Eventually, they built the entire interchange around his house and he lived out the rest of his life there. That's an option in Boca Chica, too. Well, except for the part that the guy was undoubtedly surrounded by road noise 24/7 for the rest of his life.