Hyperloop draws skeptics in Sacramento

hyperloop2.jpgNot a huge surprise - government types are not exactly outside-the-box thinkers, and most everything about Elon Musk's audacious plan for a high-speed transit system is out of the ordinary. As I said in this week's Business Update on KPCC, politics, more than feasibility or funding, will likely derail the hyperloop idea. That's because the California bullet train has been staked out among elected officials, including Gov. Brown, as a project that absolutely, positively has to happen, despite its crazy-high cost, not-so-high speeds, and questionable concept (does anyone really care about traveling by train from L.A. to SF in three hours?). But this is not about what people need or want - this is all about politicians being able to say that they created jobs. You want to take bets on how many of the state lawmakers pooh-poohing the hyperloop have even read Musk's 57-page plan or have the first clue about the technology involved? I haven't the foggiest idea whether this thing actually get people from L.A. to SF in 30 minutes, but isn't it intriguing enough to warrant a serious look? Even a prototype? From the WSJ:

"I think it's a fascinating concept, but there's a long distance between imagination and implementation," said Bonnie Lowenthal, a Democrat who chairs the California State Assembly's Transportation Committee. "Big infrastructure projects in California are very difficult," Ms. Lowenthal added. "We have very complicated funding, we have environmental protections, seismic faults and land acquisition--but that's just the shortlist." Some critics of California's existing high-speed rail project, which has taken years to plan and will cost $68 billion, welcomed Mr. Musk's announcement--especially if the project were to be privately funded. "I think it's a great opportunity for looking at a private-sector solution for more efficient transportation," said Ted Gaines, the Republican vice chair of the state Senate Transportation committee. Mr. Gaines said that he would support the project, but doubted that Democrats would back an alternative to the current plans for high-speed rail.

From Business Update:

Steve Julian: Back to the hyper-loop - is this kind of transport possible?

Mark Lacter: Well, it's the brainchild of billionaire Elon Musk, and you never say never with this guy. He started the electric car company Tesla and the private space company Space X. Now the hyper-loop is way above my physics pay grade Steve, but the basic idea is to have a bunch of passenger pods that would move on a cushion of air (think of an air hockey table). The pods would travel at more than 700 miles per hour, and of course, anything that promises super-speed travel is bound to get people talking - and, from what the physics professors are saying, the idea seems feasible.

Julian: How would its cost compare to the bullet train?

Lacter: He says a lot cheaper. The price tag on the train is $70 billion at last check, but it's certain to be higher; Musk says he can do his for $6 billion, and that's certain to be higher. But, the issue isn't so much the cost or even the technology, but the politics. As a rule, governments do not like to think outside the box, and that's what a project like this is all about. Already, you have bullet train supporters saying that the hyper-loop is impossible, but what they're really saying is we have a lot riding on the train, and we don't want this guy to mess it up.

Julian: But, how much demand is there for high-speed transport?

Lacter: You'd think there would be a lot, but a few years ago when Boeing came up with a nifty idea for a souped-up plane that would shave almost an hour from L.A. to New York, the airlines said no because it would require more fuel - and that would mean raising fares. Musk says his system would be a lot cheaper than traveling by plane, which could be a game changer in the attitudes about going places. But those attitudes won't change until the thing is actually built, and that can't realistically happen until attitudes change. So it's the classic chicken and egg...

From Slate's Will Oremus:

Musk acknowledged that ironing out some of the details would be tricky. That's surely an understatement. So much could go wrong on the path from concept to completion that it's highly unlikely anyone would attempt it unless Musk succeeded in his proof-of-concept first. (And if they did attempt it, it's equally unlikely they would succeed. No one alive can match Musk's track record of turning crazy transportation dreams into reality.) But if he does build it, and it works, California officials would be foolish not to at least consider the Hyperloop as alternative to the $68 billion rail line that it's about to start building.

More by Mark Lacter:
American-US Air settlement with DOJ includes small tweak at LAX
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Amazon keeps pushing for faster L.A. delivery
Another rugged quarter for Tribune Co. papers
How does Stanford compete with the big boys?
Those awful infographics that promise to explain and only distort
Best to low-ball today's employment report
Further fallout from airport shootings
Crazy opening for Twitter*
Should Twitter be valued at $18 billion?
Recent Business Update on KPCC stories:
Naysaying emerges in wake of LAX shootings*
Holiday shopping: On your marks, get set... spend!
What to do with all that bad chicken?
Why it's hard to gauge progress of health care programs
Why L.A. isn't being hit too hard by shutdown - for now

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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