When it surfaced two months ago, the notion of Teslas whizzing through underground tunnels between San Antonio International Airport and downtown seemed fanciful.
Now, there’s a sign the idea may have gained some traction.
The Boring Co., a tunneling firm backed by billionaire Elon Musk, has been talking to local leaders about building an underground transportation loop in San Antonio. Musk is the CEO of electric-vehicle maker Tesla, as well as the founder and CEO of SpaceX.
Under The Boring Co. proposal, a fleet of company-driven Teslas would use the subterranean circuit to shuttle visitors between the airport and downtown, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.
On Oct. 1, in what sources described as the first concrete step to explore the idea seriously, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority formally invited contractors to submit plans for “a transportation project that can efficiently and economically transport people between the general vicinity of the San Antonio International Airport and the downtown area of San Antonio.”
Alamo RMA Chairman Michael Lynd Jr., a residential estate developer, said the authority issued the request for airport-to-downtown plans in “response to a proposal submitted to us by a company.” He declined to identify the firm. Sources told the Express-News it was The Boring Co.
Lynd said the authority now has opened the process to competing firms with ideas for a better, “economically viable” way to move travelers from the airport to the center city.
“First, give us an idea,” he said. “Next, give us the facts and the tangible data behind it.”
The deadline for proposals is Dec. 1.
The Alamo RMA is an independent political authority created in 2003 to finance or acquire, design and operate transportation projects, including major highway construction and toll roads. Bexar County commissioners appoint six members of its board of directors, and Gov. Greg Abbott names the chair.
On its website, the RMA says its mission is to “address our congestion and mobility concerns through local means with local leadership.”
Its motto: “Moving people faster.”
How the tunnel loop would advance that objective remains to be seen.
The trip from the airport to the Henry B. González Convention Center downtown is 9.6 miles, about a 15-minute drive, mostly on U.S. 281. In other words, it’s an easy commute.
But the Boring Co. proposal doesn’t seek to solve a transit problem, said Bexar County Engineer Renee Green, who serves as the Alamo RMA’s director of engineering and operations.
The company is targeting business travelers landing at San Antonio International who have business and/or hotel accommodations downtown — visitors who want to avoid the hassle of renting a car.
“These are people who are doing ride-share,” she said.
Green, too, declined to identify the company behind the initial airport-to-downtown proposal. That company, she added, estimated that about 10 percent of all travelers arriving at the airport are headed for the center city.
There are many unknowns. How much would the privately held Boring Co. charge riders? How much revenue would the company expect to bring in annually? And how much would the underground tunnel set back taxpayers?
The Alamo RMA’s “request for qualifications and proposals” asks companies to describe “the anticipated maximum capacity of vehicles, passengers or facility users per direction per hour” and to spell out their “anticipated approach to right-of-way acquisition and utility relocations.”
Such a project likely would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The city of San Antonio owns and operates San Antonio International. But city officials haven’t taken a liking to The Boring Co.’s plan, which was first reported by the Express-News in August.
City Manager Erik Walsh, Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez and Transportation Director Tomika Monterville “all had conversations at various times with The Boring Co. over the summer,” city spokeswoman Laura Mayes said. “In looking at pricing and some unanswered questions, it’s just not a viable option for the city at this time.”
The Boring Co. currently operates an underground transportation loop in Las Vegas. It built two tunnels that link the four exhibition halls that make up the Las Vegas Convention Center’s 3.2 million-square-foot, 200-acre campus. End to end, the ride takes less than two minutes.
The loop opened to the public in June.
The Las Vegas loop, which includes three stations and 1.7 miles of tunnels, cost taxpayers $52.5 million — which works out to nearly $31 million per mile. It has the capacity to move more than 4,000 people an hour.
After the Dec. 1 deadline for proposals, the Alamo RMA will interview up to four short-listed companies “to further define their concepts and proposals,” according to its official call for plans. The RMA will then pick a finalist and start negotiating a development agreement.
Or it could pull the plug on the endeavor.
The authority said it “anticipates selling revenue bonds to pay for project costs, but may need additional financing to cover any gap between bond proceeds and funds needed.”
More than half the RMA’s revenue comes from vehicle registration fees. In its 2020 fiscal year, those fees accounted for $15.7 million of the agency’s $29 million in revenue.
Grants and contributions — most, if not all, from government agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation — brought in an additional $11.6 million.
Toll roads would be a moneymaker for the agency, but there are none in San Antonio — and there aren’t likely to be anytime soon.
“We have no toll-viable projects,” Lynd said. “Not having that has limited what the RMA has been able to accomplish.”
To drum up new revenue, the authority in 2019 invited contractors to pitch transportation projects on which the RMA could partner. The aim, according to the formal request, was to “a) develop new delivery methods for transportation projects and/or b) develop new revenue sources or identify revenue sharing arrangements that would provide the Alamo RMA increased capacity to complete additional transportation projects.”
The solicitation remains open and posted on the RMA’s website.
That’s what The Boring Co. was responding to when it submitted its plan for a transportation loop.
“Roads are very expensive, and they chew through funding pretty quickly — and San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country,” Lynd said. “My goal, and the (RMA) board’s goal, is to address that any way we can.”
The Boring Co. did not respond to a request for comment.