March 29, 2023

SpaceX may dig a tunnel to enable frequent South Texas launches

SpaceX may dig a tunnel to enable frequent South Texas launches
SpaceX may dig a tunnel to enable frequent South Texas launchesSpaceX may dig a tunnel to enable frequent South Texas launches
Boca Chica Highway runs through SpaceX's facilities in South Texas.
Enlarge / Boca Chica Highway runs through SpaceX’s facilities in South Texas.
Trevor Mahlmann

As SpaceX has ramped up Starship testing and launch activities in South Texas in recent years, the company has more frequently sought the closure of the Boca Chica Highway. This two-lane road runs along the company’s rocket assembly and launch facilities.

Residents of South Texas use the highway primarily to travel from Brownsville and nearby towns to Boca Chica Beach, the southernmost beach in Texas. When the road is closed, no one can access or remain on the beach.

This situation has become a logistical headache for SpaceX, which seeks road closures to move rocket hardware along the road and for tests and launches. It has also been unpleasant for nearby residents and those who enjoy the undeveloped beach.

Now, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has a potential solution. The Brownsville Herald reports that officials from Musk’s The Boring Company met with Cameron County officials in July to discuss digging a tunnel from the south end of South Padre Island to the north end of Boca Chica Beach, facilitating alternate access to the barrier island.

Such a tunnel would serve a couple of purposes. It could provide public access to the beach at all times, except during launch attempts and high-pressure tests. It could also significantly shorten the commutes of SpaceX employees who live on South Padre Island, Port Isabel, and other locations that would otherwise be more than an hour’s drive from the company’s “Starbase” facilities in Boca Chica.

The distance from South Padre Island to the northern tip of Boca Chica Beach is less than one-half mile, but the path runs beneath a shipping channel, so the tunnel would have to be dug fairly deep into the ground. The Boring Company has previously dug one tunnel, a 1.7-mile project in Las Vegas that cost $52 million. According to the newspaper, county officials would not be willing to pay for the project in South Texas.

The Boca Chica tunnel remains a concept for now, and it’s not clear what the status of discussions between SpaceX and Cameron County officials is. The project may be on hold until SpaceX completes an environmental review with the Federal Aviation Administration. Should the company obtain federal clearance to launch its Starship vehicle from Starbase, SpaceX will likely go all-in on the development of the facility as a launch site.

This would likely lead to the construction of the tunnel, as it would allow the company to frequently, if not even completely, close Boca Chica Highway for its launch activities.