Southern California residents were lukewarm about a proposed tunnel to connect Ontario International Airport to local railways at a virtual meeting Wednesday night.
“On one hand, it’s exciting to see something is moving forward,” San Bernardino resident Marven Norman, said at the virtual meeting of the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority on Wednesday, July 20. “On the other hand, it’s disappointing to see this is what’s moving forward.”
The SBCTA’s meeting was intended to collect information on possible environmental issues related to the proposed tunnel, which would run between Ontario International Airport and Rancho Cucamonga. But members of the public questioned the very idea of the tunnel.
“There’s a tremendous ‘wow’ factor to this tunnel project, I know that,” Fontana resident Bud Weisbart said. “But I wonder if other alternatives were studied.”
Part of that “wow factor” is the world’s richest man.
Elon Musk’s Hawthorne-based Boring Company first proposed building a 2.8-mile underground tunnel in May 2020. The suggested price tag of $60 million was well below the estimated $1- to $1.5-billion for a light-rail extension from Pomona. And it was theoretically going to be built much faster: in three to four years, rather than 10 years for the L Line (formerly the Gold Line) light-rail extension, which currently ends in Los Angeles County.
In February 2021, the SBCTA board began negotiating a contract with Boring for a four-mile underground loop. At the time, it was expected to open in late 2023 or early 2024.
“I think this is definitely going to happen,” San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman, the vice president of the SBCTA board, said at the time.
A year later, that’s less clear.
After SBCTA wanted to have a third party study the potential impacts of the tunnel, the Boring Company decided to not submit a proposal earlier this year.
San Bernardino County officials still want to pursue a 4.2 mile-long underground tunnel between a planned transit hub at the Cucamonga Metrolink Station and the airport. There would be one station at Terminal 2 and another at Terminal 4. No company is attached to the project and, thus, there’s no project proposal in place right now. On Wednesday, officials said SBCTA is reaching out to companies that may want to submit proposals. The Boring Company is not precluded from submitting one.
In the meantime, the expected price of the project has grown to an estimated $492 million, with service starting in 2027. That’s four years later and $432 million more than original estimates.
According to project manager David DeRosa on Wednesday night, there are already $147 million in local funds pledged to the project, along with $55 million in federal funds. SBCTA will be seeking an additional $265 million in state funding and another $25 million in federal funds. (For comparison’s sake, California’s troubled bullet train project just received $4.2 billion to fund its first phase, which will connect Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced.)
On Wednesday night, SBCTA officials answered questions and listened to concerns about the potential environmental impact of the project.
“What’s underground that may obstruct that tunnel?” Weisbart asked officials. “Is that something that’s been analyzed?”
Although there have been multiple studies already, SBCTA has not yet fully analyzed what’s underground, so that the tunnel can avoid existing sewer lines, utilities and other things down there. Likewise, earthquake studies have not yet been completed, but are required under California law, and are coming.
The comments from about a dozen members of the public — a fraction of the 72 people virtually attending the meeting — were potentially going to be included in a draft environmental impact report for the project.
Even if they never build one in the Inland Empire, the Boring Company did build a tunnel like the one proposed for Ontario. The Las Vegas Loop opened July 11. There, Loop employees drive Teslas — another company Musk owns — to carry visitors through underground tunnels. The Boring Company also hopes to build tunnels in Texas and Miami.
The Vegas Loop was raised repeatedly at Wednesday’s meeting. Norman raised concerns about whether the vehicles would be handicap-accessible, which he said the Teslas in Vegas are not.
Fullerton resident Brian Yanity went farther, and hoped the tunnel project would not not use any sort of conventional car.
“Tire pollution, like particulate matter, is a real thing,” he said. “There’s growing evidence that it’s a real problem for people.”
Experts say tires produce dramatically more particle pollution than vehicle exhaust does.
Comments on the potential environmental impacts of the tunnel project will be accepted through 5 p.m. Aug. 5 at the the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s website: goSBCTA.com/Tunnel.