Pittsburgh Expects to Benefit from Hyperloop Competition Regardless of Whether It Wins

Officials from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission were among 11 groups from across the country that presented proposals in Washington, D.C., earlier this month as part of the Hyperloop One Challenge.

by Ed Blazina, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / April 17, 2017

(TNS) -- Regardless of whether a vacuum-tube link from Chicago to Pittsburgh via Columbus is ever built, officials say the planning process and relationship building is invaluable.

Officials from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission were among 11 groups from across the country that presented proposals in Washington, D.C., earlier this month as part of the Hyperloop One Challenge.

Hyperloop One is a Los Angeles company developing a system to move freight and passengers at speeds up to 700 mph in pods that use low-pressure tubes and magnetic force, similar to pneumatic tubes used at a bank's drive-through window.

The company, which expects to begin using a 500-meter test track in Nevada this summer, previously met with a dozen semifinalists in India and will conduct another round of 12 presentations in Europe this summer before choosing 12 finalists.

Those finalists will refine their proposals with details such as exact routes and financing before three are chosen for construction, which the company says can happen in five to seven years.

“The feedback we got was positive,” said William Murdock, executive director of Mid-Ohio. “We were very encouraged.”

For now, moving freight and passengers from Pittsburgh to Columbus in under 15 minutes and onto Chicago within a half hour is more a concept than a detailed plan.

The regional group is touting the large amount of freight that already moves through the corridor — 5.9 million tons of freight worth $16.7 billion moved among the three cities in 2015 and is projected to increase to 9 million tons by 2040 without Hyperloop — and the possibility of living in one city and working several hundred miles away.

If the Midwest Connect is chosen as a finalist, Mr. Murdock said, then planners will determine details such as station locations on the 488-mile loop.

Financing for all of the projects is expected to be a public-private partnership.

“It’s a compelling technology,” said Thea Walsh, transportation systems and funding director at Mid-Ohio.

“When we look at the potential benefits, it would be game-changing.”

Mid-Ohio planners have been working with leaders in all three cities to gather information and get letters of support for the project.

They will continue to focus on the corridor and what improvements can be made now until the Hyperloop One process is finished, Ms.Walsh said.

“This has really gotten the imagination of these three cities moving,” Ms. Walsh said. “We’ve developed an even closer working relationship through this process.”

Ken Zapinski, senior vice president for energy and infrastructure at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said supporting such emerging technology is part of its duty.

“It’s serious people doing serious work, so we should be involved,” he said. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t open to ideas like this.”

Karina Ricks, who joined Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s staff in February as director of mobility and infrastructure, said the project fits the city’s forward-looking administration.

The city has been a strong supporter of other transportation technology such as self-driving vehicles and smart traffic signals.

“We’re comfortable enough with the technology that we think it’s something we should support,” Ms. Ricks said. “If that technology is viable, it’s a big step forward.”

Even if this project doesn’t proceed, the process is beneficial, helpful, said James Hassinger, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

“The connectivity that something like this offers … is very interesting,” he said.

“There’s no doubt the process of working on a project like this does bring us closer together.”

Diana Zhou, manager of market strategies for Hyperloop One, said the Mid-Ohio presentation “blew us away” with its level of community support.

The company is looking for projects that have the strongest financial structure in place and will work around other factors such as terrain and location.

“Definitely the business structure and high level of community support will be key factors,” she said. “I think the terrain and variety of projects are things we can work around. The geography is important — it’s always easier to go in a straight line rather than curves — but it’s not going to be a critical factor.”

Ms. Zhou said Hyperloop One is testing in the desert so it learns to deal with environmental factors such as extreme temperature changes and strong winds.

Because the system would involve tubes placed on pylons, Hyperloop shouldn’t have the same types of delays with rights of way that projects such as railroads and highways face, Ms. Zhou said.

Ms. Walsh said she is confident in Hyperloop One’s technology.

“It was clear to us they are talking years, not decades, to begin this,” she said. “We would love to be the first one in the United States.”

The other projects in the U.S. part of the competition are: Boston to Providence (64 miles); Cheyenne, Wyo., to Houston (1,152 miles); two Colorado projects near Denver (360 miles and 242 miles); Kansas City to St. Louis (240 miles); Los Angeles to San Diego (121 miles); Miami to Orlando (257 miles); Reno to Las Vegas (454 miles); Seattle to Portland (173 miles) and Dallas to Austin, Texas, (640 miles).

©2017 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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