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In defense of hyperloops

Eric Holthaus at Grist writes in defense of Elon Musk’s hyperloop idea in general, and the proposal for a New York to Washington, DC hyperloop plan in particular.

Assuming hyperloop costs of $100 million per mile, and tunneling costs of about the same, the 226-mile span between New York and D.C. might cost about $45 billion. And Musk wants to start digging as soon as possible — in months, not years.

Keep in mind that no human has yet ridden in a full-scale functioning hyperloop.

So, yeah. This is a really expensive, really ambitious idea. But just stick with me here.

Put in proper context, the hyperloop actually represents an incredible bargain. Just the proposed transit and airport improvements needed to keep New York City functioning in the coming decades would cost more than Musk’s entire project. That includes renovations to LaGuardia Airport ($4 billion), other regional airport improvements ($6.5 billion), the rest of the Second Avenue Subway line ($17 billion), improved access at Grand Central Station ($10 billion), a new Penn Station ($1.6 billion), a revamped bus station on the city’s west side ($10 billion), and repairs to the Hudson River tunnels damaged in Hurricane Sandy ($23.9 billion).

In California, construction on an eventual Bay Area to Southern California high-speed rail line approved in 2008 was initially expected to cost about $40 billion. (Its top speed would reach about 220 mph, less than one-third of the hyperloop.) A recent report found that the rail project was already about 50 percent over budget and seven years behind schedule.

There’s no reason to expect a hyperloop wouldn’t run into the same sort of cost overruns. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that a New York to D.C. hyperloop actually happens, at whatever cost: It would utterly transform the congested East Coast transit corridor.

Musk said a trip between the two cities would take just 29 minutes — less time than an average subway trip from lower Manhattan to the Upper West Side. The ease of long-distance travel along the nation’s most populous corridor would revolutionize transportation as we know it. It would inspire urban planners around the world. And it could be one of the single most-important steps to reduce carbon emissions and curtail global warming in U.S. history.

A functioning hyperloop would cannibalize air travel. It would also be a nearly ideal way to move cargo, greatly reducing the burden on the region’s highways and rails and providing new meaning to just-in-time shipping. Because aviationand shipping are projected to be the fastest-growing sources of new carbon emissions worldwide in the coming decades, the hyperloop — which could be operated entirely on renewable energy — is exactly the kind of technology that’s needed at exactly the right time.

I’m all about the hyperloops, as you know. I am also aware of the high level of skepticism surrounding the idea. Since one of the hyperloop proposals out there is in Texas, I’m more in the dreamers camp than the cynics, because this would be super cool if it happens. There are signs of progress, too. As long as we’re just spending Elon Musk’s money, why not indulge a bit?

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