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    The Vacuum Tubes That Ate L.A.

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    I was surprised that I got a response at all from Jarrett Walker, the noted transit planner and author of Human Transit. As the Hyperloop hype boiled over a week and a half ago on technology blogs and mainstream news outlets, it seemed wise to reach out to folks that actually dealt in transit: advocates, engineers, people that spend their lives working to make mass transit in America better. Advocating for a basic need like transit is a tireless and thankless job; high-speed rail had a few weeks in the sun briefly during Obama's first term, but when the fanfare moves on—and the president moves on—there are left people like Walker, working in the relative shadows to actually make transit projects come to life.

    Walker's email back to me was brief and unsurprising. "CNN asked me to comment today and told me they were having trouble finding reputable engineers willing to comment because they considered the idea so tenuous if not absurd. I suggested that maybe this means that Elon Musk is not actually news, and should be treated the way they'd treat any new revelation from a typical street preacher, at least until there's been time for serious people to look over his proposal."

    Frankly, serious people still haven't said very much, presumably becacuse they're otherwise engaged with the real world. In my experience in reporting on transportation—mostly for Baltimore's alt-weekly—advocates are often less concerned with headlines for the reason that headlines just don't get infrastructure done. Headlines don’t get much of anything done that requires many, many years and complicated funding schemes. This work is much more hanging out in state capital buildings, talking to community groups, and, careful strategizing. After all, infrastructure spending in the United States remains flatlined and there’s not much hope on the horizon for a turn-around as long as Washington D.C. remains in its current state of utter worthlessness.

    I almost skipped talking about the Hyperloop altogether, but it’s at least somewhat persisting in the news, mostly because Elon Musk himself jabbed the coals last week. Brief sparks or not, Conan’s Hyperloop/Springfield monorail joke was wan. Part of the problem with Springfield monorail jokes is that we already have a Springfield monorail built in the U.S., the Seattle Center Monorail, a few miles of ugly concrete in that city's downtown.

    Built in 1962 as an example of the transit of the future, it was to be the central piece of a five-line Seattle monorail system. The system, first proposed in 1997, is an interesting echo of the Hyperloop. The group behind the idea made all kinds of ridiculous financial promises too. One of these is the classic “it’s so awesome, it can surely be privately financed” claim, which dissolved readily enough as costs quadrupled almost immediately.

    Over $100 million later, in 2008, the Seattle Monorail Project was killed by a public vote with nearly two-thirds of voters saying “nay.” The city is currently building a more traditional, less-expensive and less-obstructive—a monorail complaint was that the lines would potentially sever apart neighborhoods—light-rail line.

    Much like the Hyperloop’s progenitor treats high-speed rail in California, the Seattle monorail advocates were fiercely anti-light rail. Light rail, after all, was the project’s competitor and isn’t it just so primitive and slow? A rehash of the Seattle monorail system defeat on Seattle Transit Blog recalls the propaganda war against LRT:

    This was supposed to be grassroots, bringing people together. Instead, it became an anti-light-rail festival of lies, alienating the support of transit users and people with brains everywhere. “Light rail can’t climb a grade”, they said, when the stretch we’ve built along SR-518 is as steep as their Hitachi monorail could do. “Light rail isn’t elevated”, they said… I hope everyone on this blog realizes the humor in that statement. “Light rail is so expensive”, they said (and I’m leaving out their capital letters and exclamation points) – but it turns out that the differences in cost between light rail and monorail are negligible. They poked fun at their base supporters, and it cost them.

    Elon Musk didn’t just propose a transit concept; he proposed a transit line, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This is the same route as the in-progress California High-Speed Rail project, albeit with a different suggested alignment. (He even suggested an alignment.) It’s telling that this didn’t seem particularly fishy to very many of the folks frothing at the mouth over Hyperloop: why suggest a first line for a technology that hasn’t even been fleshed out yet, no less tested?

    That’s because Hyperloop isn’t really a transit technology at all; it’s propaganda against the CHSR. It’s propaganda against high-speed rail in general, or even mass transit. Tell the people via splashy headlines that high-speed rail isn’t good enough because look, Hyperloop. Seems about as good a strategy as any.

    Except Hyperloop will never be built, and for similar reasons the Seattle monorail network floundered. The catch is that sci-fi technology is necessarily adversed to public works projects for the simple reason that almost by definition the technology is proprietary. No competitive bidding for construction, design, maintenance, or operation. It's all from the same place, and that’s bad. There’s a reason the existing Seattle monorail is still rocking the same goofy cars it came with in the ‘60s—the monorail’s builder and designer, Alweg, went under before that decade was over.

    Rail isn’t proprietary; even way-cool high-speed rail isn’t. There are many, many operations all over the world resulting in something like competitive cooperation. There is no reason for Hyperloop costs to stay within remotely feasible range with just one entity sucking money from the state and, frankly, there’s no reason to listen to even the sketchiest cost assessment for it.

    It took decades for the California High-Speed Rail project to get funded and approved, and only then because the stars were perfectly aligned in D.C. How many decades would you add to that for testing and engineering and finding people to build a technology that does not currently exist?

    It doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is that high-speed rail will be gone as an idea in favor of vague futurism. If you were, say, in the business of selling cars, that might not be such a bad thing.  

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.