So let’s take bets: who gets to their exotic destination first?

Space X, from Earth to Mars? Or the California high-speed rail project, from San Francisco to Los Angeles?

I’m not sure I would bet on either, but I’ve been wrong about both before. I doubted Space X would pull off its private space flight. And I wrote that high-speed rail was a zombie in California, well before the approval of funds to begin construction last week.

Both projects face the same problem: a lack of public urgency. What good does it do for John Q. Citizen if a private rocket ship goes to other worlds, or if a fast train takes you to San Francisco in more than twice the time it takes you to get there on a plane?

And most people don’t have any interest in riding either.

There are also doubts about the true costs – and financing of high-speed rail and private space flight. Both are betting on private investors, even though it’s clear that if they are to happen, most of the money will be from the public purse.

But both projects could capture the public imagination.

Particularly if they were pitted against each other. In a race. In a contest.

Perhaps some public-spirited billionaire could – instead of blowing his money on buying a sports team or a ballot initiative or an island (yes, that means you, Larry Ellison) – could put up a prize. Say $1 billion. The money goes to the high-speed rail authority if it completes phase one before private space companies reach Mars. (The authority won’t admit it, but they will need that money to cover the costs of operating the system)  If Space X or its competitors get to Mars first, they get the $1 billion.

To Mars! To San Francisco!

After all, they’re both alien worlds.