The attention devoted by the media recently to Elon Musk’s proposal to build an ultra-high speed transportation system that would move people at speeds as high as 700 miles per hour, labeled “Hyperloop,” has allowed some important and interesting questions to be raised about the nation’s transportation system and infrastructure: how fast do people want to travel? Is speed the highest and most important value for the nation’s transportation infrastructure? How do we wish to invest scarce public resources? And, what are the key and most appropriate national goals and purposes with regard to transportation and infrastructure?
To be sure, Musk is not alone in expressing impatience and displeasure that the United States no longer seems at the “cutting edge,” in terms of new transportation technologies. One such frustrated transportation policy leader was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who managed to include in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 authorization for several millions of federal dollars for planning and demonstration of magnetic levitation projects throughout the country.
The American people are most interested in a transportation system that provides reliability, predictability, frequency, and efficiency. Current public policy about infrastructure forces us to make tough choices about the investment of scarce investment resources. Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded America’s infrastructure D+ and noted that about $2 trillion needed to be spent in order to bring that infrastructure (including, but not limited to, transportation) to a state of good repair in the next ten years or so.
In these circumstances, particularly, in light of persistent annual budget deficits, a growing national debt, and a challenging fiscal environment, the National Transportation Policy Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center in its reports and statements consistently called for “wise” investments in transportation infrastructure, that is, investments that bring the greatest benefits, in terms of national goals and purposes. More often than not, this means investing in incremental improvements to, and the preservation and restoration of, existing assets, and the major rehabilitation or replacement of key facilities in our transportation system. Such investments in improving the operating performance of existing facilities and networks are most likely to meet the most rigorous benefit-cost standards, an important value in a time of fiscal constraint.
Establishing brand-new forms of transportation is not the greatest need of American infrastructure policy, and almost certainly not the best use of scarce public resources. This perspective applies equally to Musk’s proposal for a Hyperloop and to calls for bullet trains on new rights-of-way through densely populated urbanized regions like the Northeast Corridor. Rather, our focus should be on the application of new information technologies to improve the seamlessness, efficiency, and productivity of our existing multi-modal transportation networks, on selective expansions to existing facilities, and to the restoration of what we have.
Comprehensive and strategic capital programming, better choices on the investment of available resources, using public funds effectively to leverage greater investment of other public and private capital, providing for the resiliency of transportation facilities and assets, and identifying sustainable revenue streams to support these investments are the key issues facing transportation and infrastructure policymakers. If Musk’s proposal has stimulated serious consideration of these questions, than it will have served a useful function.