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Train to Nowhere Crashes in Court; Hyperloop Looms

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By William Peacock, Esq. on August 22, 2013 12:59 PM

Does this spell the end of the oft-criticized California High Speed Rail project?

Last week, a Sacramento judge nearly put the brakes on the project, but stopped short of a full shutdown, reports the Los Angeles Times. In a rare case of a court's ruling reflecting common perception, the court ruled that the state has failed to live up to its promises to voters and would need to remedy a number of shortfalls, including finding funding, before the "train to nowhere" could proceed.

Promises Made

Proposition 1A included a number of assurances to voters that were meant to prevent the exact situation that plagues the present-day plans. Some of those safeguards included:

  • State funding was limited to the $9.95 billion bond provided for by the proposition itself;
  • The train would take 160 minutes to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles;
  • Financing would be procured, and environmental reports completed, before construction could begin.

But Not Kept

The present-day cost estimate has ballooned to $68 billion, or $31 billion for the planned first segment between Merced and the San Fernando Valley. According to the Times, in addition to the $9 billion bond, the rail agency has $3.2 billion in federal funds.

Judge Michael Kenny's ruling pointed out that the measure "required the Authority to identify sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible, but instead were reasonably expected to be actually available when needed."

The state has also failed to complete four environmental reports that are required under the terms of the proposition.

The court's ruling doesn't stop the train outright, but the court has scheduled hearing on possible remedies. A court order terminating the project could follow.

Window for Hyperloop?

Many have called the high speed rail a pipe dream, and with the cost spiralling, the track lengthening, and the estimated travel time now nearing three hours, it seems to be just that.

What would you call Elon Musk's hypothetical Hyper Loop then?

The plans, released earlier this month after much hype, would theoretically get someone from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes and would cost only $6 billion. Even with the plans calling for running the train on pylons along the I-5 freeway (and thereby reducing the cost of land acquisition that has been the biggest culprit of the HSR's rising price tag), and physicists agreeing that the speed of the train was theoretically possible, the New York Times Bits blog discusses a number of reasons why the plan is optimistic, to put it mildly.

For one, the system is purely theoretical -- it may never work. Then there is capital, labor, land, maintenance costs, and other miscellaneous expenses. One expert put a price tag of $100 billion on the project.

Still, if the court does derail the HSR project, might that provide a window to at least investigate the Hyperloop?

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