Los Angeles Times

Tunnel to Ontario airport planned

San Bernardino County transit agency to pursue project first proposed by Musk.

- By Summer Lin

Five years ago, tech mogul Elon Musk proposed a way to curtail rush-hour traffic in Southern California: Build high-speed undergroun­d tunnels.

Among those plans, Musk’s civil engineerin­g firm, the Boring Co., submitted an unsolicite­d proposal in 2019 to the San Bernardino County Transporta­tion Authority for a tunnel that would whisk riders from the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink station to Ontario Internatio­nal Airport in just a few minutes.

The proposed subterrane­an path would run in one direction and cost less than $100 million — a far cry from the more than $1-billion price tag for a surface-level connection system, according to the county transporta­tion agency’s spokespers­on, Tim Watkins.

It piqued the group’s interest, and its board of directors backed the idea,

voting in 2020 to pursue the project.

Since then, Musk and his company have backed out of the project, Watkins said — but that isn’t stopping the transporta­tion authority.

“This is still a viable project, and we’re moving forward,” Watkins said last week.

The plan, which now features two tunnels stretching 4.2 miles, for travel in both directions, is estimated to cost roughly $492 million and is expected take riders to their destinatio­n in less than 10 minutes, Watkins said.

Three above-ground stations will be built — one at the Rancho Cucamonga rail station and two at the Ontario airport, at Terminals 2 and 4. The San Bernardino County Transporta­tion Authority plans to cover nearly half the cost and is looking to close financing gaps through grants and state and federal dollars. Service could start as early as 2027, officials said.

The agency decided to take on a “more traditiona­l process for the environmen­tal clearance” of the tunnel by having a third party assess potential impacts of the project and asking the Boring Co. to submit another proposal by the end of January 2022, Watkins said. But that deadline came and went and Musk’s company didn’t respond, effectivel­y making a “business decision not to continue down that path,” he said.

This is not the first time Musk has backed out of a tunnel project. In 2018, he announced plans to build two tunnels in Los Angeles: one that would run beneath Sepulveda Boulevard on the Westside and another between a Metro station on Vermont Avenue and Dodger Stadium. After two groups sued over the city’s proposal to exempt the Sepulveda Boulevard tunnel from an environmen­tal review, Musk said his company was no longer pursuing the project.

The Dodger Stadium tunnel also was quietly removed from the Boring Co.’s website.

Musk’s company unveiled its first high-speed tunnel in 2018, a 1.14-mile route beneath Hawthorne that took about 18 months and $10 million to construct. In 2019, the Boring Co. also signed a $48.7-million contract to build an undergroun­d transit loop for the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Watkins declined to comment on the firm’s decision about the Ontario tunnel and referred further questions to Musk and the Boring Co.

Neither responded to repeated requests for comment. But Watkins said the county applauds the “innovative thinking” from the Boring Co. to bring up new, innovative solutions to existing challenges.”

“We can see there’s real value to a subsurface connection. This is the fastestgro­wing airport in the country, and not only does [a tunnel] address the need for transit options for a growing airport, but we want to make sure we get ahead of traffic impacts for the communitie­s that surround the airport.”

Ontario Internatio­nal Airport Chief Executive Atif Elkadi said the tunnel is a creative solution to enhance transporta­tion connection­s to the airport.

But the project still has a long way to go. The agency has to secure at least $265 million from the state and $25 million in federal funding. The project’s design and building could take up to three years before it’s ready for testing.

In April, the transporta­tion authority began obtaining environmen­tal clearance and drafting a formal document for the Ontario airport tunnel, a process that typically takes about 18 months.

The agency also is conducting industry outreach and courting new firms to help with financing as well as design and constructi­on. Outside companies will be required to submit their own proposals for approval.

The Ontario airport is one of the fastest-growing in the country.

Passenger totals increased nearly 7% between April 2019 and April 2022, surpassing pre-pandemic levels, according to the county’s transporta­tion agency.

“On the upside for SBCTA, the Boring Co. has acted as such a disrupter in the market that other companies are stepping up with innovative ideas and reduced pricing, and they’re interested in these projects they may not have been interested in before,” San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford said.

“We’re excited to see which would be a good solution for our residents who want to get to the airport.”

The agency is also reaching out to the public for feedback on the project and to assess potential concerns, including how often the service will run and compliance with the Americans with Disabiliti­es Act, as well as seismic and utility issues.

Reaction has been mixed. San Bernardino resident Marven Norman criticized the plan at a recent public forum, saying the project is squanderin­g opportunit­ies to build other stations along the line.

“On one hand, it’s exciting to see that something is finally moving forward. On the other hand, it’s disappoint­ing to see that this is what’s moving forward,” he said.

“Pretty much all of these studies identified intermedia­te stations between where the transit would leave the Metrolink line and get to the airport, and this one has none, even though it goes past the mall, an office, the arena, etc.

“It’s meeting the goal of going between the train station and the airport and only that, and in the process, it’s leaving a lot of potential uses in the wayside,” he added.

Still, Bud Weisbart called the project “exciting” and said there is a “tremendous ‘wow’ factor.” But he did ask whether alternativ­e measures were studied.

The transporta­tion authority is looking into selfdrivin­g electric vehicles that will be sized to accommodat­e luggage, as well as shuttles for the tunnels, but has yet to finalize details.

It also hasn’t said how fast the autonomous vehicles will travel or how often service will run. The group plans to bring on a team to get service started around fall 2027, and then Omnitrans, which operates all buses in San Bernardino, would take over long-term operations.

“It’s a cool project,” Watkins said. “We’re very excited about bringing another innovative solution to transporta­tion and finding new ways to address old challenges.”

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