America Doesn’t Deserve Hyperloops Until it Fixes Public Transit

While startups sell us hyperloops, public transit burns.
May 13, 2016, 7:16pm
Image: NTSB

Brogan BamBrogan stood on a swanky Las Vegas stage this week in front of a room full of people who had just given his hyperloop company $80 million and proclaimed he'd like to make the futuristic tube-based transportation system "as rad as possible."

"Why can't we change transportation? I think we can—it's the 21st century, yo," the mustachioed cofounder of Hyperloop One said.

In the 21st century, anything is possible with a bit of engineering know-how, a disruptive attitude, and a willingness to sell a utopian version of the future. Except, apparently, fixing the transit we already have. For at the same time, in our nation's capital, one of the most important public transportation projects this country has ever built was on fire.

This is Metro. On fire.
— Is Metro On Fire? (@IsMetroOnFire) May 5, 2016

The same day BamBrogan announced the first ever hyperloop propulsion test—an early but important step toward eventually shooting people 700 mph through partial vacuum tubes—the federal government was threatening to shut down the Washington DC Metro because its tracks keep bursting into flames.

All around the country, actual infrastructure that we've already built is becoming unusable, and no one is willing to pay to fix the problems. In DC, that could mean long shutdowns for a subway system that shuttles roughly 712,000 people to and from work every single day. Meanwhile, governments are increasingly growing enthralled with the prospect of using public money to build shiny, futuristic hyperloops. But if public transit becomes unusable, people aren't going to take an ecofriendly hyperloop to work—they'll be forced to return to driving.

DC's Metro and WMATA, the local agency that runs it, have suffered from a series of minor and major disasters that have grown so increasingly interesting and absurd that you'd laugh at them if the state of the system weren't so damn depressing and dangerous.

I thought this article was going to be about Metro. #wmata
— Unsuck DC Metro (@unsuckdcmetro) May 7, 2016

Since it was launched less than a year ago, the automated Twitter account "Is Metro on Fire?" has had to report that the answer was indeed "yes" on more than 100 occasions. On a regular ol' Wednesday in March, the entire system shut down during a weekday for the first time in its history, causing mass panic and confusion in DC. Last week, new Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld announced a shocking series of station shutdowns and repair "surges" that are needed merely to bring the system's reliability up to something resembling adequate. Last year, a woman died and injured 80 others after a Metro car filled with smoke. In 2009, two trains collided, killing nine people.

In 2015 a "heavy smoke" event killed one person and hospitalized 80 others.

Metro's problems are myriad—it has essentially no dedicated revenue stream that's automatically appropriated via taxes, instead getting its public money through a series of subsidies that are at the whim of local governments in DC, Virginia, and Maryland. It's got 13,000 employees—many of them unionized—a not-insignificant number of whom are exceedingly bad at their jobs, as detailed in this horrifying feature by Michael Gaynor and Luke Mullins of Washingtonian.

But still. Metro and public transportation in general is incredibly important, and we're letting those systems crumble around us. The American Society of Engineers gave the nation's public transit a 'D' on its most recent grade card and noted that "many transit agencies are struggling to maintain aging and obsolete fleets and facilities."

Hyperloop One is working on a test track in Nevada. Image: Jason Koebler

Elon Musk has estimated that a hyperloop from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost between $6 and $7.5 billion—Hyperloop One's $80 million in Series B venture capital funding may pay for development of the technology, but any functional hyperloop is going to require public funds.

Hyperloop One has already scored a $9 million tax break from the state of Nevada to build that test track, Foxx has said the US government has a "responsibility" to help develop hyperloops, and Hyperloop One just launched a "global challenge" in which governments will compete to offer the company the most attractive deal, which will surely include public funds to build a hyperloop.

"We're sustainable, we're all electric, we're no noise, low pollution," Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd told me. "We have so many attributes that align with policy—if we get support from regulators and align with policy like we have in Nevada, we'll fix [the transportation] problem quickly."

This is not to say that Hyperloop One shouldn't be trying to build hyperloops. Hyperloop One is a private, profit-minded company made up of Silicon Valley-types who want to build something new. The hyperloop is an exciting engineering project, that, if it works, will undoubtedly solve lots of our transportation problems. It'll be faster and more sustainable than flying or taking a train. It'll bring metro areas together. With no steel wheels to grind on steel tracks, hyperloops should, in theory, require less maintenance.

New infrastructure like hyperloops are easy to sell to taxpayers. We are excited by the prospect of riding on a brand new train or replacing a dingy airport with a brand new one or whizzing down a tube at nearly the speed of sound.

And officials like to be remembered as the man or woman who oversaw something brand new, not as the one who merely managed to keep trains from bursting into flames. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that WMATA's previous general manager, Richard Sarles, announced his retirement mere months after he cut the ribbon on Metro's brand new Silver Line last year.

Keeping subway systems safe, on the other hand, is neither glamorous nor cheap. The Federal Transit Administration estimates it would cost $78 billion to bring all public transit systems up to a "state of good repair" and says that in total, there's about a $25 billion funding gap that's allowing these systems to fall into a state of disrepair. Fixing them would be worth it, though. The American Society of Engineers says that deficient public transit costs the US economy $90 billion annually.

We shouldn't have to choose between new hyperloops and nonflaming subway lines. But with transportation dollars increasingly tough to come by, cities should think twice about buying shiny new toys while they let their old workhorses become unusable.

Public transit may not be futuristic, but in its best iterations, it aligns very much with hyperloop's stated policy goals of being sustainable, usable, and green. The American Public Transportation Association estimates that transit reduces CO2 emissions by roughly 37 million metric tons annually. Hyperloop may be better—we don't know yet. But when people are forced to stop taking the subway because our systems are literally on fire, they're not going to use a hyperloop to get to work. They're going to be getting in cars.