Congress Should Give Hyperloops a Chance

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House Democrats this week are considering a new transportation bill that they say “fits the economy of the future.” Unfortunately, their vision of the future dates roughly to the Nixon administration. Among the usual splurges on roads and bridges, the bill contains a $95 billion bounty for old-fashioned railroads, including some $32 billion for Amtrak — the plodding government-funded behemoth that has been losing money since 1971.

No doubt, America’s trains should run on time. But as lawmakers plot out years of new spending, they should spare some thought for emerging — and potentially transformative — technologies. In particular: hyperloops.

A hyperloop is a transport system in which magnetic-levitation pods convey passengers or cargo through pressurized vacuum tubes. Due in part to its association with Elon Musk’s hype machine, the concept has gained plenty of detractors. But hyperloops are quickly becoming reality. At least eight companies around the world are working on variations of the idea. Several have built test tracks. In November, two Virgin Hyperloop employees rode in the company’s tube for the first time, reaching 107 miles per hour in 6.25 seconds.

One thing no one disputes is that they’ll be fast. Because the vacuum tube all but eliminates aerodynamic drag, hyperloop pods could exceed 700 miles per hour in a straightaway. In theory, that could reduce travel times between big cities by hours. One proposed system connecting St. Louis and Kansas City could cut the trip from four hours by car to just 30 minutes; a San Francisco to Los Angeles corridor might have a similar effect.

Another potential advantage is cost. Hyperloops have a narrower footprint than traditional rail lines, and could be constructed along existing highways, thereby reducing the expense of securing rights of way. At a House hearing last month, the head of one hyperloop company estimated a building cost of about $54 million per mile. By inexact comparison, the cost of California’s high-speed rail project is estimated at $154 million per mile and climbing. Because hyperloops would likely excel at shipping high-value freight — such as time-sensitive Amazon packages — they could also plausibly fund operations without taxpayer help.

Safety, too, could improve markedly. Sealed vacuum tubes would eliminate most of the major threats (pedestrians, animals, vehicles, grade crossings, weather) that traditional railroads encounter. Automation should greatly reduce the potential for human error. And by displacing cars, hyperloops could significantly cut down on traffic fatalities. Mishaps would surely still occur, as with any new technology, but there’s reason for optimism.

Perhaps most crucially, hyperloops could be emissions-free. In many areas, solar panels along the route could provide sufficient energy for propulsion, and indeed could produce surpluses for local power grids. One proposed line, connecting Chicago to Cleveland to Pittsburgh, would significantly boost local jobs, incomes, property values and economic activity while eliminating as much as 143 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, an analysis found.

Of course, the U.S. shouldn’t be ripping up railroads to make way for hyperloops anytime soon. Nor would big federal handouts make sense for an unproven technology. But some modest steps are in order.

As a start, Congress should create a University Transportation Center to study hyperloops. Such centers have helped build skilled workforces, solve engineering problems, and propel transportation improvements for decades, at little taxpayer cost. In due course, federal lending programs for infrastructure — such as TIFIA — should allow hyperloops to compete for credit support with more traditional modes. Congress could also let state and local governments issue tax-exempt private-activity bonds to lure investment to hyperloop projects, just as they do with airports or transit facilities. Such subsidies need to be kept in check, but a promising new technology should be allowed to advance on equal terms.

Not long ago, a vision of lightning-fast, ultra-safe, emissions-free transport pods zipping across the country in vacuum tubes would’ve been science fiction. Now, this appealing prospect is starting to look plausible. Congress can help make it happen.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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