We at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch don't want to be accused of being hypercritical, but we're not quite sold on the recent Hyperloop hyperbole. The idea of building a high-speed rail loop connecting St. Louis with Kansas City definitely falls on the hyper side of the logic spectrum.
If you drink enough coffee and let your imagination run wild, sure, this idea sounds exciting and inspiring. But in reality, there isn't near enough money to pay for it, and there isn't near enough public interest in travel between the two cities to make it economically feasible.
The entire idea first gained public prominence last year as part of Missouri's pitch for Amazon to build its second headquarters here. Amazon didn't buy it, and neither should Missouri taxpayers if they're asked to fund it. Landowners certainly won't be thrilled when they learn about the amount of land that would have to be seized by eminent domain to clear the path.
No one should fault the futuristic dreams of Virgin Hyperloop One or Elon Musk's SpaceX. When SpaceX landed its first reusable rocket booster on floating landing pads and then launched a Tesla roadster into deep space, we cheered Musk's innovative spirit.
Equally inspiring is the idea of super fast, nearly frictionless travel inside a vacuum tube where the rail car floats over a magnetized rail. It'll probably happen someday, somewhere. But from what Kansas City-based engineering giant Black & Veatch presented last week regarding the Hyperloop's potential, the project almost certainly isn't going to happen in Missouri.
Perhaps most problematic is that Black & Veatch's feasibility study cannot be released publicly, which means Missourians will just have to take the company's word for it that the Hyperloop can be built, would work, would be affordable and that travelers would actually use it.
The cost is estimated at $7.5 billion to $10 billion for a 250-mile track, including a stop in Columbia, Missouri. Black & Veatch estimates 16,000 to 52,000 passengers would use the rail service daily. Even if the investors sought an extremely low public investment of 1 percent, the taxpayer cost could be $100 million — this for a state that faced a $200 million shortfall to pay for its school transportation needs.
The Hyperloop idea reminds us of the very expensive Superconducting Super Collider that was long ago proposed for Waxahachie, Texas. Visionaries in 1987 sold Congress on the idea that America could lead the way in science if a $4.4 billion, 14-mile, highly magnetized Super Collider tunnel were built south of Dallas. Like NASA in Houston ahead of the space race, the project was touted as putting America at the forefront of discovery. After a $2 billion expenditure, Congress canceled it in 1992.
Maybe we're just being hypercautious. But high per-mile cost and hyper-inflated estimates of public demand don't match what we know about economic reality.
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