(TNS) — CLEVELAND, Ohio — Is hyperloop being hyped in Ohio?
Some readers and journalists voiced skepticism about the as-yet unproven high-speed transportation technology after California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency launched a $1.2 million study last Monday to examine the feasibility of a line from Cleveland to Chicago.
On Thursday, Slate published an article calling hyperloop a "pipe dream," a play on words given that the technology, first envisioned in 2013 by entrepreneur Elon Musk, would send people and cargo in capsules racing near the speed of sound through steel or concrete tubes maintained at a partial vacuum.
The Chicago Reader followed up by asking whether hyperloop is "the future of travel or a fanciful space-age hamster tube."
The Cleveland-Chicago feasibility study, to be finished late this year or early next, would address cost, ridership, potential economic impact and return on investment, among other topics.
But critics are citing claims made by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies last Monday as reasons for doubt and pushback even before the analysis is done.
An HTT promotional video said that a Cleveland-to-Chicago link would make the trip in 28 minutes and carry 54,720 passengers a day.
Andrea La Mendola, chief global operating officer for the company said last Monday that "in three to five years, we might have a hyperloop here; that's the goal."
Dirk Ahlborn, the CEO of HTT, clarified in a follow up phone interview that La Mendola's three to five-year estimate would be true for construction, but would not include right-of-way acquisition, regulatory review and other hurdles that could add many years to construction of a hyperloop link in the U.S.
"We're working with other countries that are much more pushy and that have easier land acquisition rights," Ahlborn said. "In the U.S. it's fairly complicated."
He said the speed of a trip between Cleveland and Chicago, would be affected by the configuration of the line.
Top speeds could be reached and sustained if the system was built primarily in a straight line, but would be slower if it included stops in Sandusky and Toledo.
Whether "it takes you 36 or 28 minutes, it's still amazing," Ahlborn said. "The main goal is passenger comfort and economic viability."
In Cleveland, readers of The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com questioned whether public money should be spent on investigating hyperloop when the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority is cutting bus and rapid transit rides and jobs in order to cope with lost sales tax revenue.
Grace Gallucci, executive director of NOACA, said she remains convinced that researching hyperloop is the right thing to do, especially because she said the line proposed by HTT would be privately funded, not government-supported.
Gallucci anticipates that a national, fully commercialized hyperloop network won't be realized for 25 years, but that city-to-city links such as Cleveland to Chicago could happen sooner.
"Do we want to be at the beginning of that 25 years, the middle of that 25 or end of that 25?" Gallucci said. "We want to be at the beginning."
Gallucci said government should establish appropriate routes, networks, and rights-of-way, especially as they cross state lines.
"Those are the pieces we do want to be involved with rather than having a private company do it on their own," she said.
Gallucci said that NOACA's share of the $600,000 contribution to the feasibility study, which includes $200,000 donated by the Cleveland Foundation, would come from dollars in its budget that can only be spent on planning, not for mass transit operations.
NOACA spends $10 million a year to support transit in Cuyahoga and Lake counties, Gallucci said.
She said the feasibility study would include how revenues from hyperloop could benefit local transit systems in Cleveland and Chicago.
"That's something that's got to be addressed, and it's logical," she said.
HTT is one of three companies exploring hyperloop in the U.S.
They include Musk's Boring Company, which is exploring a route from Maryland to Washington, D.C., and Virgin Hyperloop One, which is looking at four U.S. routes, one of which would connect Pittsburgh and Columbus to Chicago.
Two weeks ago, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) launched a $2.5 million Rapid-Speed Transportation Initiative to study routes either for traditional passenger rail and/or a hyperloop to link Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Following the MORPC and Cleveland announcements, the Slate article, authored by Henry Grabar, asked why, as a tagline put it, "cities and states are throwing money at a nonexistent mode of transportation."
But the article trained most of its fire at HTT, questioning what it called the company's financial value and saying that it's staffed mostly by volunteers.
Company spokesman Ben Cooke said in an email the firm had raised more than $100 million in 2016, but "this does not reflect the valuation of the company, which we have not announced publicly."
HTT views itself not as a traditional company but as a digital platform where collaborators on loan from other firms work in exchange for stock options. Harvard Business Review called the business model a "crowd-powered" ecosystem.
"If you use the standard definition of volunteer (a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task) then Slate is wrong as all of our contributors receive value in the company, they do not work for free,'' Cooke said.
Slate said Hyperloop One "fired a pod through a tube at 240 mph in December" at its test track in Nevada, contrasting that accomplishment with what it called HTT's "inability to get stakes in the ground."
Ahlborn and Cooke said that HTT would complete a 1 kilometer test track in Toulouse, France, by the middle or end of this year, with a full-size passenger capsule.
Gallucci, commenting on differences between HTT and Hyperloop One, said that while the former is putting $600,000 in cash into the Cleveland-Chicago study, the latter is contributing in-kind services to the Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago study, a fact confirmed by MORPC.
Despite doubts about whether a hyperloop system will ever become a reality in the U.S., experts say it still makes sense to explore the technology now.
"You don't want to be like the guy in the 1920s who said, 'We're never going to have ubiquitous air travel all across the country,'" DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman said in the Chicago Reader article.
"This is an emerging technology that's being developed and it's a proper role of government to figure out whether it makes any sense," said Cleveland transportation consultant Ken Sislak, a vice president at AECOM.
The firm has acted as a consultant for Hyperloop One, Sislak said, but AECOM is "technology neutral and agnostic about which companies we want to work for."
What's key, he said, is that what MORPC and NOACA are doing in Ohio "is very good in terms of trying to prepare today for what is emerging in the future.
"This is what planning is all about."
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