Sunday, Dec 03, 2023

Infrastructure innovation derailed: How Facebook's failed plan to turn a century-old railway into a commuter bridge may serve as a warning for The Boring Company

Infrastructure innovation derailed: How Facebook's failed plan to turn a century-old railway into a commuter bridge may serve as a warning for The Boring Company

Elon Musk's Boring Company, which aims to create tunnels to cut down on traffic congestion in cities, has completed just one of six known projects.
Facebook's failed plans to revive an old railway bridge to ease traffic congestion near its offices are among the latest stumbling points facing future-looking tech companies as they try their hands at solving transportation woes.

The social media company planned to renovate the Dumbarton Rail Bridge — an unused railway spanning San Francisco Bay — after it acquired Instagram and Whatsapp, expanding employee headcount nearly ten-fold in six years from 3,200 in 2011 to over 25,000 workers by 2017.

The bridge was intended to streamline the increased traffic to its headquarters and expand Facebook's property portfolio, renovating the railway that laid dormant for 40 years.

The $20 million project — initiated in 2017 and abandoned in 2020 due to political hurdles and 1COVID1-19 complications, according to The New York Times, which published a deep dive into the failed project on Saturday — may be a glimpse at the future of Elon Musk's Boring Company, which has been described by The Wall Street Journal as "ghosting" major US cities by backing out of proposals to build tunnel systems.

The Boring Company, an infrastructure company that began as a subsidiary of SpaceX before separating in 2018, has promised since its inception to build high-speed tunnels in major cities in an effort to reduce traffic and improve pedestrian access. It raised $657 million in series C investment, giving the company a nearly $5.7 billion valuation.

Since the completion of its research and development test tunnel in Hawthorne, California in 2018, The Boring Company has completed just one project open to the public: a 1.7 mile loop connecting the campuses of the Las Vegas Convention Center with its Exhibit Hall. 

Plans for other tunnels — including projects in Los Angeles, connecting Washington, DC to Baltimore, and from the Chicago airport to its downtown neighborhood — have been scrapped by The Boring Company.

Los Angeles proposals to build tunnels under the congested 405 freeway and near Dodger Stadium were abandoned in 2018 and 2021, TechCrunch reported, after facing criticism from city council members for being "rushed." 

The DC to Baltimore transit system, announced in 2017, was canceled in 2021 following issues with environmental review processes and permitting delays, The Washington Post reported.

In Chicago, a 2018 bid by The Boring Company to build high-speed tunnels to the O'Hare Airport was dropped by June 2021, following public criticism of the lack of transparency surrounding the untested technology, The Chicago Business Journal reported. 

"Every time I see him on TV with a new project, or whatever, I'm like: Oh, I remember that bullet train to Chicago O'Hare," The Wall Street Journal reported Chicago city council member Scott Waguespack said, referring to Musk. 

Former senior executives of The Boring Company say the company is struggling to retain engineers and technical staff, given Musk's strict leadership style, which includes working 120-hour weeks and sleeping on couches in his factories and expecting employees to do the same.

The Boring Company was created after a series of seemingly joking 2016 tweets sent in the early morning hours by Musk, in which he complained about traffic and promised to start digging tunnels. 

"Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging...," he posted at 5:05 a.m. A few hours later he added: "I am actually going to do this."

While reporters and consumers immediately questioned whether Musk was serious about creating The Boring Company, early progress on its development silenced critics for several years.

Now, on its website, the only currently listed tunnel projects include modifications to the Las Vegas Loop. It's unclear whether The Boring Company will submit additional bids for tunnel projects in the future or complete the scheduled additions to the Vegas Loop.

Online, critics are voicing concerns that the whole company was a "scam" or "bait and switch" that was "designed to propose automobile alternatives to mass transit projects" and drive business toward his electric vehicle company, Tesla.

Despite its failed plan to materialize the Dumbarton Rail Bridge project, Facebook has continued massive infrastructure undertakings, largely in the form of submarine cable acquisition and development.

The social media company, rebranded as Meta since it began the cable development and scrapped the bridge plan, has acquired 6% of operating cable routes worldwide as of 2022, according to Fair Internet Report, a market research firm. By the time its 2Africa infrastructure project is completed, Meta will hold an interest in more than 13% of the world's submarine cable infrastructure, spanning 33 countries and touching 36% of the global population.

Though the future of The Boring Company's tunnels remains unclear, it appears Musk will continue to attempt to innovate existing infrastructure through his many businesses — including plans to use Tesla's energy storage technology to "shift the entire energy infrastructure and transport infrastructure of earth," Electrek, a transportation news service, reported.

Representatives for Facebook and The Boring Company did not immediately respond to Insider's requests for comment.

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