California Governor Jerry Brown made no secret of his wish that a high-speed rail line from northern to southern California would be his legacy. He’s now 75 and is expected to run for and win reelection next year. That would mean he’d be 80 upon retiring. You’d think that durability would be legacy enough. Apparently, though, he thinks he must leave some great work behind them.
For Jerry, it’s the railroad. Touted by him, it would go 400 miles between the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento on to Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego. It would deposit you at one end in about the time it now takes to drive to an airport, fly across the state, and drive to you next appointment at the other end.
With the support of professional railroad fans, some construction unions, and assorted starry-eyed optimists, Brown sold California taxpayers four years ago on a ballot measure authorizing $9.95 billion in state bonded indebtedness to get the railroad going.
Last year the state legislature passed and Brown signed a bill to use $4.5 billion to build the first 130 miles of railroad track in the Central Valley. This automatically made available $3.2 billion in federal funds (“free” money). So, bids went out to build that stretch from the small city of Madera to somewhere north of Bakersfield (dubbed “The train from nowhere to nowhere”).
All seemed to be going swimmingly until August 16 when a judge in Sacramento County ruled in favor of a group of Central Valley folks that the California High-Speed Rail Authority had failed to comply with the financial and environmental promises made to the voters in 2008. The judge ruled that the agency “abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of the law” and that it failed to identify “sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible.” What the heck, it was all for a good cause. Hadn’t Jerry said so?
The judge did not stop immediate project funding, so that he can hold another hearing to determine what the next step will be.
Skeptics point out that the cost estimates keep creeping up. For Phase I, between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, is now $68 billion with a final cost of the full system of $81.4 billion. Those skeptics also predict that ridership will never meet the rosy projections of the Authority.
Now comes Elon Musk, developer of the Tesla electric auto, with what may be a much better idea. At about the time of the judge’s ruling, he unveiled the Hyperloop, a system for moving people at high speeds in safety, at low construction cost. It is a high-tech version of a time-tested technology, ETT or evacuated tube transport.
You may have seen it at work in a department store not long in the past. The sales clerk rings up your purchase, puts the sales slip in a hand-held canister and puts that into plastic vacuum tube through which it travels to somewhere else in the building. Soon, the canister comes back through the tube with your receipt.
Musk’s Hyperloop would transport people in comfort and safety in a human-scale plastic version of the canister. The vacuum tube would be built above ground on pylons (he proposes the media strip of Interstate 5, to save money on right-of-way acquisition). The Hyperloop could travel at speeds up to 700 miles per hour. Actual speed will depend upon variables such as the size of the canister (“bullet”), how straight the tube is and the amount of vacuum.
Musk’s plan contends the system would go fast at a low cost of energy and would be environmentally friendly, in part because it would use solar panels atop the tubes.
There have been and are a number of scientific studies of the concept and small-scale field tests, including one at MIT.
Musk says he too busy with the Tesla automobile and two other advance technologies — Solar City and Space X — to take the lead on Hyperloop. He has called on techies, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurial political folks to step up. One of the latter, David Salaverry, founder of the California Conservative Action Group, has begun the process by organizing a ballot initiative for 2014 that would de-fund the CHSRA and put a portion of the already approved funding into Hyperloop.
It will take political willpower, too. In the past, Jerry Brown has proved he can apply that. Now, here’s a project that could give him legacy to last for, well, a century or more.