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February 19, 2018

Elon Musk gets approval to start digging Hyperloop in D.C.

Is a 29-minute trip from New York to Washington – maybe with a stop in Philly – really in the works?

The literal pipe dream of a 30-minute ride from New York City to Washington, D.C. — with stops in Philly and Baltimore in between — might not be entirely the fantasy it seemed when Elon Musk revealed his East Coast Hyperloop project had a federal green light last summer.

The Boring Company, Musk's California-based infrastructure startup, reportedly has received a municipal building permit to begin excavation for hyperloop development in the nation's capital, according to a report published Monday by The Washington Post.

In a jarring series of tweets last July, the Tesla, Inc. and SpaceX founder said he had received "verbal government approval" to construct the electromagnetic transport system.

Philly's leaders initially balked at the vague announcement, claiming they had never given input on the nascent technology.

As testing for the speedy transport system picks up momentum in Southern California, more definite questions and healthy skepticism about its practical implementation are increasingly surfacing in discussions about Musk's vision.

The Post reported Monday that government of Washington, D.C., gave The Boring Company a permit that will allow preparatory work at a fenced-off parking lot at 53 New York Avenue NE, in the capital's emerging NoMa neighborhood.

A spokesperson for The Boring Company said the site could become, in theory, a station for a future Hyperloop system containing multiple small stops throughout its network.

Support for Musk's East Coast exploration has come from some influential backers, including from the White House Office of American Innovation and Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has extended permits to help make the Baltimore-to-D.C. stretch the project's first phase.

Plans to dig tunnels that would address the "soul-destroying" congestion of the greater Los Angeles area were presented to government officials by The Boring Company last month. Musk has also signaled his intent to bring Hyperloop transit to Texas and Illinois.

First introduced in a 2013 white paper, Hyperloop technology is described by some as a pneumatic transport system (PTS), with pods relying on electromagnetic rather than active propulsion. In his own charismatic words, Musk calls it a combination of the Concorde, an air hockey table and a railgun.

The Post reports that a Hyperloop's pods would carry about 16 people each, even towing personal vehicles along with them. Underground stations would be more modest in size than current transit stops, but they would also be more plentiful.

From a cost standpoint, Hyperloop proponents they'll will not only be more efficient, but less expensive to construct and run than high-speed rail systems. Musk has boldly claimed the fares could be as cheap as $20, which is far below the cost of an Amtrak trip from D.C. to New York.

What remains most in question are the technical limitations and structural safety of such systems when they're expanded beyond the range of current tests and embedded into existing built environments.

Others have taken exception to Musk's vocal attacks on public transportation. In a nasty Twitter argument late last year, SEPTA consultant and mass transit advocate Jarrett Walker called Musk's agoraphobic vision "the essence of elite projection" for future cities. Musk called Walker "an idiot" and then deleted the tweet.

Philadelphia officials said last summer they had heard nothing concrete from Musk about his long-term plans to bring a Hyperloop marvel to town. A separate federal proposal from the Federal Railway Administration calls for speedier Amtrak trains and improved efficiency along the Northeast Corridor, which may serve as an intermediate step to the uncertain timeline of Musk's proof of concept in a real-world setting.

The futurist entrepreneur's history of eventually delivering on his moonshot promises, from electric vehicles to rockets, is reason enough for Philadelphia to be glad it's in the discussion. And it's probably for the best if they don't do all the testing here, in the meantime.