As San Antonio emerges from the two-year pandemic and looks ahead to its next decade of robust growth, big ideas that help accelerate the city’s economic development and improve quality of life deserve our collective attention and support.

The biggest idea on the drawing board, in my view, is the proposal by Elon Musk’s Boring Company to construct 9 miles of underground tunnels between San Antonio International Airport and downtown. Tesla vehicles would transport passengers in each direction and would emerge from 30 feet underground and proceed to individual surface addresses.

For readers who regard the idea as unrealistic, consider the multiple underground tunnels in San Antonio built in recent decades. Two major floodwater diversion tunnels exist below the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, preventing catastrophic flooding events that plagued the city in the past. Other tunnels house pipelines that safely move wastewater throughout the city to the SAWS Steven M. Clouse Water Recycling Center on the South Side.

The W-6 Tunnel, a SAWS wastewater pipeline project inside a 5-mile tunnel 140 feet below ground in some places, is now under construction along Highway 90 and Southwest Military Drive, bypassing Lackland Air Force Base, and scheduled for completion later this year.

It’s refreshing to see alternative ideas to the tail-chasing tradition in Texas of perpetually spending billions of dollars to build more highways to service more carbon-emitting individual vehicles.

Yet state elected leaders have been unwilling to support mass transportation options here and in other Texas cities, declining in the last two legislative sessions to raise vehicle registration fees (VRFs), the sole source of funding for the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (Alamo RMA), leaving the agency unable to independently finance many pending roadway projects.

Alamo RMA Chairman Michael Lynd Jr. believes San Antonio can undertake the tunnel project without state money, and that no amount of state or local spending on roads and highways will allow San Antonio to avert a traffic congestion crisis by 2050.

“Road projects take years and years to complete, and they often cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Lynd said in an interview last week.” There are an additional $10 billion to $20 billion in proposed road projects just in our region.”

He cited an Alamo RMA map projecting traffic growth from 2020 to 2050 that assumes all of the proposed road projects, currently unfunded, are somehow completed — which realistically will not happen.

“It’s more than scary, every major roadway is orange and red, very little green, and that assumes we fund and execute all our projects,” Lynd said. “When I look at where we are going, it’s heartbreaking to think of the implications if we don’t get ahead of the curve.”

A map shows projected traffic congestion in the year 2050 for roads in Bexar, Kendall, Comal and Guadalupe counties.
A map shows projected traffic congestion in the year 2050 for roads in Bexar, Kendall, Comal and Guadalupe counties. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Regional Mobility Authority

The Boring proposal was selected from five submissions after the Alamo RMA solicited new revenue-generating transportation proposals in 2019.

In mid-March, the board approved staff moving forward with Boring representatives to study routing options and challenges, as well as drilling and construction costs, which are now roughly estimated to run between $247 million and $289 million.

The board meets again on April 20.

One major factor favoring the Boring Company was the successful completion of the LVCC Loop, the underground transportation tunnel built under the Las Vegas Convention Center that will be expanded with construction of the 29-mile Vegas Loop to reach the Las Vegas International Airport and service that city’s casino and entertainment strip.

“Light rail costs $175 million to $200 million a mile, and that was pre-pandemic — the numbers are now higher,” Lynd said. “The 12-foot diameter tunnels would cost around $25 million a mile. The Boring Company proposal does not require a significant capital investment by the RMA. Not one dollar being used to build roads is being diverted to build the tunnels.

“The goal is for this project to be fully self-financed, and be paid for by the people being transported.”

Lynd said Alamo RMA would be able to leverage anticipated revenue from riders to issue revenue bonds to pay for the project. No one’s taxes would be raised, he argued, and no money would be diverted from other transportation improvement projects. Ridership fees would likely cost more than bus fare and less than ride-sharing, Lynd said.

The tunnels would address ever-worsening traffic congestion and declining air quality in the city, and provide a safe, fast and affordable means of travel for residents and the millions of visitors hosted by the city each year, Lynd said. They also could generate funds the Alamo RMA could use to undertake other projects too expensive to be financed via VRF-backed bonds.

To test those assumptions, Lynd said the agency will now invite third-party proposals to study the potential traffic impacts and revenue the project would generate.

Right now there is widespread agreement among locals and travelers that San Antonio underperforms in terms of its airport experience and transit options compared to airports in other regional cities. While the 20-year, $1 billion master plan to expand the airport proceeds, finding a more sustainable and efficient way to move people downtown and to other destinations should be a parallel objective.

The airport to downtown tunnels, Lynd said, would be the first leg of what could become an integrated network of transit tunnels connecting San Antonio’s major economic and education nodes, including the South Texas Medical Center, UTSA campus, Brooks and Texas A&M-San Antonio to the airport and downtown.

“Mobility creates economic opportunity,” he said. “This isn’t the only intended route, but it’s the first. If it’s successful, there would be nothing to stop us from connecting to other parts of the city, to other key employment nodes.”

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority Chairman Michael Lynd Jr. is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of individual members, click here.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.