Hyperloop to high-speed rail: Who will build the future of mobility?

high-speed rail, hyperloop sustainable transportation technology
A modern high-speed rail system in Taipei. What will the next chapter in mobility look like in the U.S.?

"It’s an ultra high speed, tube-based transportation system," explained Hyperloop Technologies Chief Legal Officer Afshin Pishevar. "Think of it as airplanes without wings, and then we levitate."

In downtown San Francisco, just a few blocks from the temporary headquarters of Uber, a divide that resonates far beyond the Bay Area — two deeply divergent visions of the future of transportation — is on full display.

Pishevar is detailing Hyperloop's 3-acre campus in Southern California, which houses 150 employees, as part of a summit hosted by the Commonwealth Club and the Mineta Transportation Institute focused on the logistics of building more sustainable transportation systems. To his right sits Fresno City Council President Oliver Baines, who faces a dual challenge and opportunity in getting his constituents — 42 percent of whom lack a high school diploma — engaged in different sort of next-generation mobility.

"High-speed rail will be built. I am confident of that," Baines said of California's proposed $64 billion, 530-mile rail system from south of Los Angeles to San Francisco. "There will be workers who work on this for a long time, but we are not guaranteed those workers will come from Fresno."

At issue with the Hyperloop vs. high-speed rail debate is not only differing costs and policy considerations, but also how to physically build these new systems. Both proposals come at a time of upheaval in transportation, with a boom in on-demand transportation services such as car- and ridesharing throwing into question the future of both personal car ownership and the most effective ways to meet demand for public transportation.

One common roadblock was imminently clear in San Francisco; although the clock is ticking on transportation's huge contribution to global carbon emissions, neither side has a clear path to success.

"In order to sustain mobility for what is today the world’s eighth largest economy, we have to expand," said Dan Richard, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "We have to build, but we have to build in the right way."

In addition to industry-wide transportation technology concerns such as demand response and cybersecurity, a generational divide is coming into focus between skilled trade workers historically relied upon to build public infrastructure and younger technical talent more oriented toward white collar job perks than union labor.

Although the gap resonates across the workforce, transportation is a particularly pronounced example.

While the California High Speed Rail Authority is leaning on union contractors for early phases of work being done in the state's agriculture-reliant Central Valley, the looming retirement of hundreds of thousands of municipal and contract transportation trade workers poses a major question about long-term labor availability.

"Well over 100 folks could walk out the door tomorrow," said Ed Reiskin, director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency of the looming baby boomer "silver tsunami" retirement wave. "We don’t have folks necessarily behind them."

On the flip side, Hyperloop finds itself in competition for highly educated technical talent that is also being courted by the likes of major automotive R&D shops and well-heeled tech companies angling to break into transportation, such as Google.

"We have welders, engineers, physicists, fabricators all working together," Pishevar said. "It’s finding very creative, highly talented people from the top to the bottom. The millennials are extremely good at this."

In Fresno, meanwhile, Baines is worried about much more fundamental "challenges we have on the ground" that hold workers back from breaking into the transportation workforce.

"A lot of people are working minimum wage jobs and find it very difficult to transition into better jobs," he said. "Being able to read and understand at a certain level is critical for the trades."

Driving the future

Even as a poster child for 21st century job creation, California still faces pronounced challenges when it comes to retrofitting transportation infrastructure for massive population growth.

"We have billions of dollars of invest happening in the city, and even more in the region," Reiskin said. "But all of that growth is creating an affordability issue that is pushing some of the folks needed to build that transportation system farther and farther out."

In many ways the dilemma facing the transportation industry mirrors the dilemma facing the workforce at large. In question is whether both the public and private sectors can build for next-generation infrastructure while providing sustainable employment opportunities.

The energy industry, for example, provides another instance of a field that has become increasingly fragmented with a decline in fossil fuel-related jobs, particularly in states built on coal mining, and a concurrent rise in solar, wind and other renewable energy jobs that require specialized training. 

In theory, it should be all hands on deck for improvements to major cross-sector infrastructure such as transportation, energy and water, but that's not always the case.

Tim Rainey, executive director of the California Workforce Investment Board, said that a combination of private sector short-termism when it comes to workforce training and lagging linkages with per-apprenticeship level training for less skilled workers can result in labor gaps that are hard to address.

"We want to focus on where the most jobs are, and that is the middle skill," Rainey said. "It’s about having an education system that people can check back into."

Still, how that vision squares with the cutthroat market for talent at disruptive transportation players is far from clear.

"This is not an existing technology," Pishevar said of Hyperloop. "They have to first invent the tools, then invent the technology."

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