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Cities want to believe in the hyperloop because US infrastructure is so bad

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Local officials traveled to DC to drool over the futuristic transit system, but no one wants to cut a check

Shailen Bhatt, the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Transportation, has high hopes for the hyperloop. He would like to see one cutting right through the middle of the Rocky Mountain State, connecting half a dozen cities, reducing travel time from hours to mere minutes, and bolstering Colorado’s image as a high-tech destination.

“Freight rail moves freight, high-speed rail moves passengers,” Bhatt said, “Hyperloop has the potential to do both.”

Never mind the fact that no human or freight has ever traveled by hyperloop for the simple reason that there are no hyperloops anywhere in the world. Despite the millions of dollars committed by hopeful investors, the technology has yet to be tested in any meaningful way. LA-based startup Hyperloop One says it just finished its half-kilometer-long test track in the desert north of Las Vegas, and in a few months it will conduct its first full-system test. But as of now, the hyperloop only exists in the spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations of Hyperloop One’s marketing team.

So it’s a little surprising that Bhatt and dozens of other US state officials — folks from Texas, Ohio, California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere — trekked all the way to a rainy Washington, DC, in early April for Hyperloop One’s official US launch. These officials were participants in the company’s “global challenge,” in which cities and states from all over the world vie to present the most feasible hyperloop routes. Many of these officials told The Verge that they were aware of the limitations of the hyperloop but remain boosters of the technology in the hopes that when it gets built, it will be in their own backyards.

To be sure, the things that the hyperloop guys were promising — lightning-quick travel between cities, the ability to move freight in the blink of an eye, and fundamentally altering our cities and communities — is incredibly appealing. Who wouldn’t want to travel from San Francisco to LA in less than 30 minutes? And have you seen the state of this country’s infrastructure? Ew.

Last week, back-to-back train derailments at New York’s Penn Station, the busiest transit hub in the US, caused cascading delays for millions of commuters. Meanwhile, a portion of Interstate 85 in Atlanta collapsed Thursday after a massive fire, snarling traffic in one of the country’s most congested cities. Also, a collapsed bridge in California has put huge sections of the famed Highway 1 out of commission.

Our trains are over capacity, our highways pockmarked with potholes, and our airways are controlled by outdated, 20th century technology. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the country’s infrastructure a D+, and estimated it would take $2 trillion over 10 years to close the gap. President Donald Trump wants to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, but that plan is unformed at best and incoherent at worst. And many experts point out that the US lags behind other industrialized nations in terms of updating our roads, bridges, and airports.

So when the Hyperloop One team unveiled its “vision for America” — a network of hyperloops connecting major cities and ports across the country — it’s hard not to get caught up in the, well, hype. Especially when the company’s executives name-drop the historic milestones in transportation, like the Wright Brothers and the Apollo Mission, to sell their vision.

“We can dream about putting a man on the Moon, and within a decade we actually made it happen,” said Shervin Pishevar, co-founder and executive chairman at Hyperloop One. “That’s what we’re inspired by.”

Are cities being sold a bill of goods? Maybe. There’s early evidence that the hyperloop won’t be nearly as cheap as its supporters claim. When Elon Musk first proposed the hyperloop in 2013, he envisioned a route from San Francisco to Los Angeles costing about $6 billion, or $11.5 million per mile. But leaked financial documents from Hyperloop One (obtained by Forbes) put that cost closer to $13 billion, or $121 million per mile. That’s still less than the projected cost of California’s high-speed rail line, which is expected to reach $68 billion.

But the hyperloop would be an entirely new technology, built from scratch without any of the right-of-way allowances, land acquisitions, or regulatory approvals that other modes of transportation, like the railway, currently enjoy. Dean Wise, vice president for network strategy at BNSF Railway, summed up the hurdles that the hyperloop would have to overcome before it could put shovels in the ground.

“It is very difficult to build anything new in the US of scale,” Wise said, “particularly when you go into port areas where there is many competing interests. And as someone who’s primarily privately funded, we have a billion dollars of hot money in our hand, ready to build some facilities on the West Coast. And we saw the five-year delays, the eight-year delay, and now nothing happens... When projects don’t get built at all, why should someone engage in that effort?”

Image: Hyperloop One

There was a lot of dry talk about the need for “procurement reform,” as well as the need to prove the hyperloop’s ability to make money to sway risk-averse private investors. Experts agreed that the biggest roadblock, though, will be gaining government approval, especially in an era when bipartisan agreement on anything is pretty much a fool’s errand.

In meetings with members of Congress, Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd said that there was a lot of excitement for hyperloop, but that the company had yet to meet with anyone from the Trump administration. He felt emboldened by reports that during a March meeting on infrastructure (which included Elon Musk), Trump expressed interest in both high-speed rail and the hyperloop. But given the ephemeral nature of the president’s attention span, that may prove to be a false hope.

“The airplane was pie-in-the-sky, the car was pie-in-the-sky, virtually every mode of transportation we enjoy today was at one a point pie-in-the-sky idea,” said Anthony Foxx, who served as transportation secretary under President Obama. “We have to accept that there’s a stretch here. But it’s a stretch that can yield pretty significant benefits. What surface transportation mode today can get 700 miles per hour? None. There’s a huge opportunity, we just have to be willing to do what it takes to get there.”

Others agreed that making the hyperloop a reality was more about raw will power than anything else. “It’s not about the money,” said Andy Garbutt, head of KPMG’s US infrastructure working group, “it’s about getting all the building blocks in place.” This is true, but the money is a crucial piece of the pie. Venture capital only goes so far, especially when you’re talking about something like the hyperloop — which is to say a massive infrastructure project that’s super capital-intensive (read: billions and billions of dollars) and so new that there aren’t any rules written for it yet. None of the city officials I spoke to seemed prepared to start cutting checks.

“We do have a letter of support from the governor,” said Thea Walsh, a director at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, when I asked her about funding.

What about the private stakeholders, groups like AECOM that are helping Texas design and lobby for its proposed triangular-shaped hyperloop between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio? “We absolutely could help with the money,” said Steven Duong, senior urban designer at AECOM. “But right now, I would say we’re holding off until it develops further.”

As of now, these officials, both public and private, sound about as eager to start funding the hyperloop as they do to be the first human passenger to ride one. When I asked Bhatt, Colorado’s transportation director, whether he’d be willing to be first in line when his state’s hyperloop opened for business, he begrudgingly agreed. After all, what choice did he have but to sacrifice himself for the sake of transportation innovation?

“We’ll make it a true Colorado experience and maybe have some other things available,” Bhatt said with a wink, when I asked him if he would need any Dramamine. “Everyone will be pretty chilled out.”