Is this … is this really happening?
On Wednesday morning, Elon Musk made a strange announcement on Twitter: His Boring Company (yes, that’s what it’s called) had received “verbal government approval” to build an underground hyperloop, he said. The maglev-powered train thing would pass through New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore before terminating in good old swampy Washington, DC. All in twenty-nine minutes.
It sounded momentous—but “verbal government approval” isn’t a thing. A White House spokesperson said the administration had conducted “positive conversations” with Musk and Boring Company executives, but declined to comment beyond that.
Musk also acknowledged the project has a ways to go. “A verbal yes is obviously not the same as a formal, written yes,” Musk wrote in a Twitter direct message to WIRED. “It will probably take another four to six months to get formal approval, assuming this receives support from the general public.”
Bad news, Elon, my friend: The White House doesn’t have much power when it comes to rubber stamping gigantic, multi-state infrastructure projects.
“It means effectively nothing,” says Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” Sure, having presidential backing isn’t bad—but it is far, far from the ballgame.
Even Musk’s four- to six-month timeline seriously stretches it. Because here’s what it actually takes to get approval to build gigantic, multi-billion dollar, multi-state infrastructure projects in the United States of America:
(Spoiler: Something nearing an act of God.)
Getting Everyone Onboard
First, you have to get the OK from all the states and cities and municipalities involved. This is essential because Musk promises this Northeast hyperloop will pass through city centers, so he’s counting on tunneling under places where lots of people live and work and play. Judging by the the official responses from local agencies and politicians along the proposed route, this process is not quite underway. “This is news to City Hall,” the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Looks like the Boring Company has a lot of boring meetings with public officials ahead of it.
To give you a sense of how big a deal getting everyone on board with a hyperloop would be, consider that just New York and New Jersey have struggled for over 20 years to reach an agreement to build a single tunnel under the Hudson River—a tunnel the region needs desperately. California isn’t even close to acquiring all the land it needs for the first part of its high-speed rail project, which started building in 2015. This hypothetical Northeast hyperloop project would tunnel under at least three rivers, hyperlooping through at least six states in the process. If just one city, town, or state says no, well, tough luck?
Musk seems to understand that building a hyperloop will become a political fight. “I think (the hyperloop project) will make a major positive difference to anyone traveling that route, so I hope people do take the time to let their elected officials know that they want this to happen,” Musk wrote in a Twitter direct message to WIRED. He should know that political offices have been won and lost on mega-projects—Seattle booted one of their mayors out for opposing a tunnel. Either way, politicians will be wary about getting involved.
Even if the feds could somehow take the lead on this one and ram a hyperloop through localities, it’s not clear who’s in charge. The Federal Railroad Administration, which handles high-speed rail? The Federal Highway Administration, which manages the roads? Who determines safety standards and holds the Boring Company accountable? “I’ve read the entire surface transportation bill, and I’m not sure where this goes,” says Tomer.
Securing the $$$
And then there’s the little problem of moolah. Just updating the current Northeast corridor railroad—you know, the one run by Amtrak—to high-speed rail standards would cost an estimated $123 billion. Tunneling will be even more expensive. Musk has promised his boring technology will speed up the construction and bring down costs. But boring will never be cheap, especially in populated areas. Carving less than two miles of tunnel under New York for the Second Avenue Subway took $4.5 billion. Even if this hyperloop were entirely privately financed, it would take lots of zeroes.
And it’s hard to start projects without all the money already secured, says Tomer. He points to the XPressWest, a high-speed rail proposal to link Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In 2006, the $5 billion project was supposed to be funded by the private market. Then it sought (but didn’t get) a federal loan. Then it formed a short-lived partnership with Chinese rail companies. It still hasn’t broken ground.
Environmental Impact Statements
By law, projects need to be evaluated for the potential environmental consequences of their construction and operations, to create what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal agencies generally take a while to prepare these documents: One 2008 study found the average writeup took three and a half years, and some have taken as many as 18. They also cost a lot to prepare—millions and millions in government funds.
Environmental effects can also strangle projects indefinitely. An extension of Washington, DC’s metro has been in the works since 1994, but was hamstrung by lawsuits alleging the project would destroy wetlands and other wildlife habitats. (One case alleged the 16.2-mile rail line would be a particular threat to two tiny, threatened species of crustaceans.) An appeals court reinstated the Purple Line’s environmental approval just this week. Now, it waits for funding. Just imagine how many precious critters live between DC and New York.
Building a Hyperloop
Then there’s the little trouble of perfecting a technology that doesn’t exist yet. Hyperloop One, one of the many companies competing to build the first hyperloop, ran a successful test out in the Nevada desert last week. Just a few small problems: The track was 315 feet, the “train” a sled, and that sled reached just 70 miles per hour. (A completed hyperloop should hit 700.)
“The hyperloop is something absolutely novel—it’s worth being excited about,” says Tomer. “But that excitement should be tempered with the realities that this is not tangible technology at this point.” Perhaps the country should see one of these things at work before someone starts writing checks—or breaks out a shovel.