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Can Tech Bubbles Rewire Our Thoughts About Public Spending?

Maybe a functional high-speed rail network really is just a few SnapChats and Ubers away.
September 6, 2014, 12:00pm
Image: Shanghai Maglev/kanegen/Flickr

A group of investors is pitching a new maglev train to span the 60 or so miles between Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland. Based on a long in-development Japanese technology known as SCMaglev (superconducting maglev), the new line would theoretically cut commuting times between the two cities to 15 minutes, according to its proponents, which is a considerable savings from the current 45 minutes

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The SCMaglev investment group is advertising an absurdly optimistic price tag of $10 billion, some large part of which would be loaned out by the Japanese government. That $10 billion figure means that this would-be train of the future will somehow manage to cost less than the derailed ARC tunnel project, intended to expand rail capacity underneath the Hudson between New Jersey and Penn Station, which before its cancellation was threatening to balloon to $11 billion.

More realistically, for the SCMaglev we're talking about construction closer to $40 billion or even more just based on a quick survey of other big ticket fixed-guideway transportation projects. Another guidepost would be the California High-Speed Rail project, currently forecast to cost about $70 billion for the proposed network's first phase.

Discussing these price-tags is a peculiar thing though. $40 billion is a lot of money, isn't it? It would seem so—that's like a half-century's worth of yearly Amtrak subsidies, or 20 or so combined years of federal funding for transit projects via the United States' New Starts program. But maybe the problem is in comparing the project's finances to other transportation projects and not some other, larger financial picture.

For example, on a near weekly basis we're presented with what constitutes a financial alternate reality. As a friend noted, a new SCMaglev line is really just a few SnapChats ($10 billion) or Ubers ($17 billion) or WhatsApps ($16 billion), and those are ideas. Why would we ever accept a reality in which things like the above are routinely flooded by billions of dollars, yet requesting more than mere scraps for infrastructure is practically taboo.

Where is the hole in this thinking? Is it in a failure to see the real utility and-or fundamental value in the Uber and SnapChat models? A failure to see that those valuations are grossly inflated by an industry paranoid of missing the next thing?

Or is it true that money is just really, really fucked up and out-of-control? Unfortunately, none of the above yields an answer that might point to some new reality where giant sums of money get thrown at infrastructure projects.

But maybe, in the end, it's not so unreasonable to imagine the screwiness in tech valuations having some unintended consequences as far as what we, as people that pay taxes and elect people to lead, consider to be expensive or at least cost-effective.

After all, as US infrastructure continues to crumble, a shift in that perspective would be a very good thing indeed.