We’ve recently said that Elon Musk’s tunnel-boring project could be the potential foundation of a hyperloop transportation system. But as is too often the case in California, a reasonable objective has been sidelined by outrage. Musk has abandoned the project that began near his SpaceX Hawthorne Municipal Airport headquarters because a couple of neighborhood groups, using environmental law as a bludgeon, took it to court.
The tunnel was to be a proof-of-concept demonstration for a hyperloop, a system in which train-like cars travel through pneumatic tubes at high speeds. But the tunnel is now nothing more than a horizontal hole in the ground. The Brentwood Residents Coalition and the Sunset Coalition sued, claiming that the exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act granted to the Boring Company violated state law. Musk agreed to end the project in a legal settlement with those groups.
So California’s NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), and NOPEs (Nowhere On Planet Earth), fueled with the zeal of “New Urban Luddites,” stop progress yet again.
The California Environmental Quality Act, more commonly known as CEQA, just might be the greatest threat to development and commercial progress that has ever been concocted in the halls of lawmaking. The nearly 50-year-old law is the primary reason California home prices are so unaffordable. It raises construction costs and causes delays that can kill entire homebuilding projects.
Hoover Institution scholar and California Foundation for Commerce President Loren Kaye has called CEQA a tool for abuse. This is especially applicable when it’s used to pursue outcomes unrelated to environmental impacts. Even San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz argued a few years ago that “the 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act is vulnerable to exploitation from interests whose motivations have nothing to do with protecting resources.”
NIMBYs and the rest of alphabet groups employ CEQA to stop cold development when planned projects don’t fit their narrow definition of what’s acceptable, businesses use it to stall and when possible block competition, and unions apply it to leverage higher wages.
A hyperloop system is a fascinating prospect because it would be cheaper, faster, safer, and cleaner than a bullet train. A hyperloop would consume less energy than other modes, isn’t subject to weather issues, and — this is especially important in California — isn’t vulnerable to earthquakes. It can be adapted to long, medium, and short routes, and has the potential to lighten the traffic on the state’s overcrowded freeways. Some believe it has national security advantages.
Hyperloop development has — so far — also been a private rather than public or public-private enterprise. This is a tremendous advantage over the California bullet train, which is costing taxpayers $3.1 million a day, and might not ever carry a single paying passenger.
It’s a shame Musk has been forced to walk away from his tunnel. Maybe he’ll keep the momentum going with his plan to build a Dugout Loop to shuttle fans between Dodger Stadium and a Metro station beginning with the 2020 season. It could be the closer needed to shut down the bullet train.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.