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Should Elon Musk's Westside tunnel get to skip environmental review?

Despite concerns from the region's big transit agency, Elon Musk's Boring Company got an important nod from Los Angeles lawmakers in its quest to bypass environmental studies and build a tunnel under a busy Westside thoroughfare.

On Wednesday, the city council's Public Works Committee unanimously approved the project and exempted it from state environmental reviews.  The plan still needs to go before the full city council for final approval. 

The committee voted after a city engineer told members that an environmental study for a similar tunnel dug by the Boring Company in Hawthorne would be applicable to the plan to build a tunnel under Sepulveda Boulevard.

Musk wants to construct a network of tunnels to move people and vehicles underground on emissions-free vehicles. To accomplish that, he wants to test the concept with the Sepulveda tunnel.

One end of the 14-foot diameter tunnel would start near Pico and Sepulveda (an intersection made famous in song by Felix Figueroa and his Orchestra).  The other end would terminate near Sepulveda and Washington Boulevard in Culver City.

But officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are worried Musk's plans could interfere with their own plans to put a subway under Sepulveda Boulevard.

On Wednesday, Phillip Washington, CEO of Metro, wrote the Public Works Committee stating that any tunnel by the Boring Company must be submitted to Metro for approval before digging could begin. The recently-approved Measure M transit sales tax provides funding for Metro's planned subway project under the Sepulveda Pass.

Washington said Metro had oversight authority for all mass transit projects in the county under the state Public Utilities Code. 

City Councilman Bob Blumenthal said the experimental tunnel would not be permitted to carry any passengers, so it wasn't a mass transit project. Still, he agreed with Washington and his motion required the tunnel to meet Metro approval before construction can start. His motion approving the tunnel also required the Boring Company to indemnify the city against any legal costs and costs that might occur if the project is not completed.

The Boring Company already has one tunnel in Hawthorne, and its proposed future network could extend to many parts of the region including the South Bay, Westside and San Fernando Valley, according to a motion submitted by 5th District Councilman Paul Koretz.

The tunnel project has had at least some environmental review. The city's Bureau of Engineering was relying on a 1,500-page report prepared by The Boring Company for the tunnel it dug in Hawthorne.

During the public hearing Wednesday, Sherman Oaks consultant Robert Rieth said granting the Boring Company an exemption from state environmental reviews gave the company an unfair business advantage over other private or public projects.

The company says its tunnels would be similar to those built for subway trains by Metro. It's put forward a few different visions for what would run in the tunnels. The latest has zero-emission vehicles and small passenger buses. Representatives of the Boring Company at the committee meeting declined to make a comment or give their names to a reporter.

On Wednesday, officials with the city of Culver City said they had not given any approval to the Boring Company’s proposed tunnel, nor had the company submitted any applications for permits or approvals.