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Boring Company transit tunnels
Elon Musk’s vision calls for building networks of underground tunnels to get around surface street congestion. (Boring Company Illustration)

Out of the blue, tech billionaire Elon Musk reported today that he’s received verbal approval from the government to build an underground Hyperloop transit system between New York and Washington, D.C., with stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

“NY-DC in 29 mins,” Musk said in a tweet:

But it’s clear that the plan isn’t fully nailed down. When one reporter asked whether Musk was trying to drum up support for the project rather than reporting a done deal, he replied, “Support would be much appreciated!” Later, he acknowledged that he hasn’t yet received the formal go-ahead for anything:

The White House acknowledged that it’s been involved with discussions about Musk’s plan.

“We have had promising conversations to date, are committed to transformative infrastructure projects, and believe our greatest solutions have often come from the ingenuity and drive of the private sector,” the White House said in a background statement emailed to GeekWire.

Musk’s tunneling operation, whimsically called the Boring Company, said there have been “a number of promising conversations” with local and state officials as well as federal officials.

“With a few exceptions, feedback has been very positive and we have received verbal support from key government decision-makers for tunneling plans, including a Hyperloop route from New York to Washington, D.C.,” the Boring Company said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “We look forward to future conversations with the cities and states along this route and we expect to secure the formal approvals necessary to break ground later this year.”

Have officials actually started looking into specific routes, or delving into the technological and regulatory hurdles that’d have to be overcome? Many of the agencies that should be in the know seemed to be in the dark today:

Musk said the first tunnel would actually be built under Los Angeles to get around surface traffic congestion, and that the next Hyperloops would probably run from L.A. to San Francisco and between cities in Texas:

The reference to the L.A. Hyperloop is yet another hint that the plan for a new breed of underground transit system isn’t fully baked. Musk has started an experimental tunneling project under a parking lot next to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., but hasn’t yet gotten approval from local authorities to go any farther than that.

The concept that’s taking shape blends two of Musk’s passions that have been considered secondary to his day jobs as the CEO of the SpaceX rocket venture and the Tesla venture for electric cars, batteries and solar panels.

One of those passions is the Hyperloop, a network of tubes that could carry passengers and cargo at near-supersonic speeds. Musk came up with the concept in 2013 but has left the job of commercializing it to others.

The other passion is tunneling: Frustrated by L.A. traffic, Musk set up the Boring Company late last year to look into more efficient methods to dig tunnels. That’s the venture behind the SpaceX tunnel experiment, and behind the bigger initiative that Musk announced today.

Musk’s tweets suggest that he sees the Boring Company as a Hyperloop play, which means Musk is now in the Hyperloop business, alongside competitors who are building off his original open-source idea.

When President Donald Trump came into office, Musk became an industry adviser on several White House councils, including a panel organized by the newly formed Office of American Innovation under the leadership of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

Musk quit the White House councils in frustration when Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Nevertheless, some have speculated that the “verbal government approval” for a Hyperloop project may have come from someone on Kushner’s team.

For what it’s worth, Musk was in Washington this week to speak to the International Space Station Research and Development Conference. It’s natural to suppose Musk had other meetings with policymakers during his D.C. trip. And it’s also natural to suppose that Musk now has a new campaign to add to a list that also includes putting Earth on a course toward sustainable energy and making humanity a multiplanet species.

This report has been updated as of 2:10 p.m. PT July 20 with comments from the White House and the Boring Company, plus more tweets from Elon Musk.

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