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D.C. has given Elon Musk a permit to do a little digging for the Hyperloop

D.C. has given Elon Musk a permit to do a little digging for the Hyperloop
Elon Musk (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

It's not much now, just a parking lot with a discarded gin bottle and an old exterminator receipt.

But the slice of pavement near the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives building in the District of Columbia could be the gritty precursor to a tunnel network that could propel pods filled with people and speeding platforms topped with Teslas and Toyotas between the nation's capital and New York in 29 minutes.

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Or it could be just be a parking lot littered with dashed transportation dreams.

Electric-car pioneer and space entrepreneur Elon Musk has been touting his vision for a high-speed transportation system since his tweeted announcement last summer that he had received "verbal govt approval" for his tunnel-digging firm, the Boring Co., to build a "NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop."

The Boring Co. team has received an early, and vague, building permit from the D.C. government that will allow some preparatory and excavation work at the fenced-off parking lot at 53 New York Avenue NE beside a McDonald's and amid the construction cranes of Washington's booming NoMa neighborhood.

Asked about the permit, issued Nov. 29, a Boring Co. spokesman said Friday that "a New York Avenue location, if constructed, could become a station" in a broad network of such stops across the new system.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser visited the Boring Co. in California this month, walking in a tunnel to learn more about the technology the company says will make tunneling faster and cheaper.

D.C.'s Department of Transportation is figuring out what other permits the company would need to cut under city roads and other public spaces, according to Bowser's chief of staff, John Falcicchio.

"We're just beginning, in the mayor's office, our conversation to get an understanding of what the general vision is for Hyperloop," Falcicchio said. Asked whether the Bowser administration supports the project, he was somewhat upbeat but noncommittal, adding: "We're open to the concept of moving people around the region more efficiently."

Musk has received backing from the White House Office of American Innovation, led by President Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, whose administration rolled out a welcome mat and provided a utility permit, though more permits are needed and no tunneling has begun. Maryland officials say the tunnel would run under Maryland Route 295. The Baltimore-Washington leg would be the initial stretch in the East Coast system.

The overall concept is that pods with perhaps 16 people in each could speed around on electric sleds. Those sleds could also carry individual cars to and from numerous stations. There would be a main artery, with spurs connecting to various stations.

Elevators would take people up and down to the tunnels. And those tunnels would be built relatively close to the surface without disturbing buildings and other structures.

The stations would be somewhat modest affairs, numerous but not grand in scale.

"Stations in a Loop or Hyperloop system are small in size and widely distributed in a network — very different from large-station termini considered for train systems," the company spokesman said.

"Hyperloop" refers to a vacuum-based, people- and car-moving system, which would get rid of wind resistance. Shorter hops within or between cities might have a non-vacuum system, hence the reference to a "Loop" system.

Tunnel experts say the digging part is technically feasible, if potentially slow and expensive. As for how to safely orchestrate the underground system of multiple super-fast pods, transportation experts say the challenges are legion.

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And the naysayers are numerous, though their views are varied. Some point to Musk's history of over-promising, as with the slow production of his more-affordable Tesla Model 3. But others, even skeptics, say he has a vision and hard-to-beat record of breakthroughs on the road and in his rocket ventures.

Some transportation advocates worry that moving people and cars — rather than just people — in the high-speed system would undercut the benefits of more-traditional mass transit.

"We need to fix the Metro. Traffic is just bad," said Mohamed Hussein, an Uber driver from Virginia who stopped for lunch beside the New York Avenue parking lot. Hussein was not enamored with the idea of being swept along at harrowing speeds. "It's like a bullet. Woooom!" he said. "Too much."

And he was, he said, realistic about time. "How long will it take them to build the tunnel?" he asked. "It will take a long time."

But Mohamed Musa, director of housekeeping at the Hyatt Place Hotel a couple doors down, can't wait.

"Just the idea of going to New York to have lunch and come back, it'll be awesome," Musa said.

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