Colorado’s Hyperloop Dreams Seem to Have Slowed to a Crawl

It appears that the dream of defeating worsening traffic congestion will need another white knight — at least for now. Unproven technology and a company closure have some looking for more immediate solutions.

by Jackson Barnett, The Denver Post / March 4, 2019
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(TNS) — For people who spend their days thinking about how to solve the traffic problems along the Front Range and Interstate 70 corridor, late 2017 brought an intriguing announcement that was one part futuristic technology, one part hype and another part encouraging economic development news.

And it came in the form of Brogan BamBrogan, a tech leader with a cool name and an even cooler mustache.

His thick, half-brown half-grey contour of hair twitched above his upper lip as he spoke from a TEDx stage in Sacramento in April 2016. His topic: the future of transportation. A future that was supposed to be as effortless as it would be traffic-less, and one that was supposed to be realized in Colorado.

Fast forward to November 2017 when BamBrogan’s company, Arrivo, said they planned to build a test track along E-470 for a technology called hyperloop, which essentially is a track or tube that transports pods that levitate on magnets and can reach speeds over 200 mph. Theoretically.

It was a development that turned heads: Was it a legitimate technology and could travelers actually be transported from, say, the airport to downtown Denver in a matter of minutes?

If those questions are ever answered, it doesn’t appear Arrivo will be the company to do it.

In December, BamBrogan’s hyperloop company shut its doors, according to Amy Ford, communications director for Colorado Department of Transportation.

And it wasn’t just a high-tech dream that collapsed with Arrivo — there were real-world economic implications.

In November 2017, the company also announced plans to hire up to 200 employees and invest $10 million to $15 million in a research development center by 2020. In return, Commerce City, where the development center was to be built, offered business incentives with a $187,000 tax rebate value. The state’s Office of Economic Development also offered $760,000 in performance-based incentives if Arrivo hired 75 high-payed employees over three years. None of the incentive thresholds were met, the office said. It is unclear if Arrivo ever hired any new employees in the Denver area; no former Arrivo employees responded to interview requests.

Arrivo’s announcement came months after their rival Virgin Hyperloop One selected Colorado as one of 10 potential locations to unleash their developing tech. The flurry of announcements sparked hopes that Denver would be the site of scenes of futuristic travel, but Arrivo’s collapse has deflated much of the hype.

“There is going to be excitement and good feelings when folks express interest in coming to your state,” said former CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt, who currently is the CEO of Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “We were pretty eyes-wide-open that no one was breaking ground around a hyperloop corridor.”

Troubled Tech

BamBrogan’s Tedx Talk took place three years after the start of the hyperloop story. Elon Musk, tech entrepreneur, sleek-car manufacture and space rocket launcher, published a paper on an idea that was bouncing around his head: the “Hyperloop Alpha.” It was the latest and greatest from the famed entrepreneur.

But, the technology is as improbable as potentially revolutionary, experts said.

Hyperloop works by taking magnetically levitated pods and propels them through a resistance-less vacuum tube. The lack of resistance, in theory, allows for the pods to reach supersonic speeds.

“With anything like this, you have the initial concept put forward that gives the engineers a goal in the development,” said Gavin Bailey, technology and development manager at the Transportation Research Lab, a London-based research firm. “Inevitably in the development, they realize the current limitations.”

In Colorado, the brick wall is that “you can’t take it up mountains,” he said. Other questions still abound about the basic technical feasibility.

In a study conducted for a potential Virgin Hyperloop System linking Kansas City and St. Louis, the flat landscape was a positive. Colorado could replicate that on the Eastern Plains, but hopes for a single-digit minute ride to Vail are less likely.

The price tag could also reach fantastical heights, Roseline Walker, a tech consultant for Transportation Research Lab said.

“Logistically and operationally it just seemed very far-fetched,” she said.

Walker and Bailey co-authored a paper for Transportation Research Lab titled, “Hyperloop: Cutting Through the Hype,” that detailed many of the technical challenges for hyperloop.

“There is always an excitement about tech, Colorado in particular there is an idea that we are open to new things and open to new tech,” Bhatt, the former CDOT executive director, said. “Then, there is a stark reality that there is a pretty significant price tag.”

Virgin Hyperloop One has raised nearly $200 million, according to CrunchBase. Investors include Richard Branson (who affixed the word “Virgin” to the company’s title) and Ahmed Bin Sulayem, a prominent businessman from Dubai.

Roads still clogged

Despite Arrivo’s failure to bring a solution to Colorado’s traffic, the problem still remains. Cars crawl along U.S. 36 as workers drive into Boulder, I-70 becomes a ski-rack-topped parking lot on weekends and Denverites’ commutes have only worsened.

“You can’t expand Interstate 25,” Bhatt said, adding that many other roads are at capacity.

Despite the challenges, Bhatt and Ford are both optimistic about the future. For Bhatt, he says vehicle-to-vehicle communication could increase safety and reduce road deaths by having cars tell each other when they are breaking or slowing down. For Ford, she is optimistic about having a former tech entrepreneur as governor.

But for the time being, hyperloop is not on Colorado’s horizon.

©2019 The Denver Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.