Commentary

Elon Musk's NY-DC hyperloop plan has White House in the loop

Commentary: The Boring Company founder says the government gave its blessing for an East Coast Hyperloop. He just somehow failed to get it in writing.

Elon Musk is apparently chatting with the Trump administration about his favorite futuristic transit project. But don't get too excited about an East Coast Hyperloop, yet.

The serial tycoon tweeted on Thursday that his tunnel boring company got a "verbal" thumbs up from government to whisk us from New York to Washington aboard his Hyperloop in less than half an hour.

Musk also tweeted a few more details about the plan:

Sounds like a dream come true for anyone who works in DC but has always preferred to live among the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Just imagine a 29-minute, near supersonic commute from Grand Central to the US Capitol.  

About two hours after his initial tweet, Musk clarified a little bit, tweeting: "Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly." 

I reached out to the US Department of Transportation to see if they were involved in the conversation Musk mentions and was referred to the White House, where a spokesperson had this to say:

"We have had promising conversations to date, are committed to transformative infrastructure projects, and believe our greatest solutions have often come from the ingenuity and drive of the private sector." 

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Sadly for those of us who salivate over the future Musk promises, especially when it comes to much needed updates to public transportation, the reasons for skepticism here swamp that optimism before it has a chance to bloom.

Despite the supportive words from the White House, the government is not a single human being that can speak with one voice who could physically give "verbal" approval. A Hyperloop route with stops in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington would surely require numerous approvals, or at least tons of coordination, from different governments and their agencies at the federal, state and local levels. (Here's a running list of comments from public agencies so far).

In fact, the only explanation in which I can take Musk's tweet literally is a scenario where the federal government claims all the necessary subsurface and surface rights along the proposed Hyperloop route through eminent domain. This would be an expensive (and insanely controversial) proposition as the US Constitution requires fairly compensating anyone whose land is taken via such a process.

Musk has tweeted in the past about "promising conversations" regarding his tunneling ambitions with government officials, but this is the first time he's claimed to have done an invisible deal with one.

So, did someone in the White House or elsewhere in the federal government just assure Musk that they would seize a large corridor of lands along the East Coast for the construction of a Hyperloop? Let's hope not. I think I would prefer dealing with airport security lines to living in that country. 

Myself and a number of other reporters tweeted back at Musk asking for clarification about his statement. So far he's provided none, other than to respond that he'd appreciate support

I was able to contact the Boring Company, where a spokesperson had this to say:

"The Boring Company has had a number of promising conversations with local, state and federal government officials. With a few exceptions, feedback has been very positive and we have received verbal support from key government decision-makers for tunneling plans, including a Hyperloop route from New York to Washington DC. We look forward to future conversations with the cities and states along this route and we expect to secure the formal approvals necessary to break ground later this year."

That's a lot of approvals and not a lot of months left in the year, but I'll concede that a ceremonial groundbreaking can probably happen just about any time with minimal approvals. 

Who knows, maybe Musk and the Boring Company will be able to cut through all that red tape as quickly as a Hyperloop pod will one day travel from New York to Washington.

Update at 4:15 p.m. PT to add comment from the Boring Company.

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