August 19, 2013

High speed rail, meet hyperloop. You two will get along great.

By Anthony L. Francois Senior Attorney

California has renounced its glory days of the Hollywood Golden Age, world class education, and earthchanging infrastructure development for Reality TV, a public university system that costs $32,000 annually to attend, and roads that are so poorly maintained they cost us hundreds of dollars a year to drive on them.

Today’s post combines two of these trends, by bringing you the latest political-science-fiction reality show, known as “High Speed Rail.”  This episode of “High Speed Rail” finds the California High Speed Rail Authority appearing in Sacramento Superior Court, where Judge Michael Kenney informs our hapless reality star that it violated Proposition 1A when it sought state bond funding to build the first segment of track without meeting either the funding or environmental clearance requirements mandated by California voters when they approved the bullet train project five years ago.

Meanwhile, Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced a conceptual design last week for a potentially revolutionary transportation system he dubbs the “Hyperloop.”  As Musk explains it, he conceived of Hyperloop as a direct response to the approval of California’s high speed rail project, which he finds to be both too costly and too slow relative to other bullet train projects around the world.

Hyperloop would purportedly cost a tenth of the California High Speed Rail to build.

To be sure, critics are already denegrating the idea, as they should.  New technologies need to stand up to real tests of practicability, cost-effectiveness, and market acceptance.  The point is not to argue that Hyperloop is the better way to go.  That debate is for scientists and engineers (not politicians) to hash out.  Hyperlook may turn out to be just another goofy idea.  And even if it is technically sound, Hyperloop could just as easily become another excuse for rent seeking (it would not be Musk’s first episode of that reality show).

But the emergence of Hyperloop as a competing concept is a very important teaching moment as Californians watch their government repeatedly double down on High Speed Rail.  One of the inescapable results of massive government sponsorship of “innovative” technological projects is that the science and engineering stop when the state acts.  Once California locks in on a particular technology platform for High Speed Rail, it will stop “innovating” and return to what government does best: protecting entrenched interests (today’s train boondoggle) at the expense of development and further innovation (tomorrow’s actually revolutionary transport invention).

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