Meredith Rutland Bauer is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance reporter covering the environment, science, and technology. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, VICE, TheStreet, and the Tampa Bay Times.
A company has inked a deal with state and local authorities to officially study the idea of a Chicago-to-Northern-Ohio supertrain.
From Chicago to Cleveland takes six hours by train, at least five by car, and an hour in the air. By hyperloop? That would be more like 28 minutes.
The prospect of a trans-Rust Belt supertrain might seem like a fanciful notion, but Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a company based in Culver City, California, has taken at least one small step toward making the futuristic transportation system real: The firm signed a partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation and North Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency to conduct a feasibility study, HTT announced on February 15. The study is expected to take six months, according to Andrea La Mendola, HTT’s chief global operations officer.
The Ohio and Illinois agencies will use the feasibility study to investigate potential routes, determine costs, and try to address engineering challenges. There will be many, beginning with the very premise itself: Hyperloop is a somewhat speculative form of transit that’s been the focus of much attention since 2013, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk released a now-famous white paper detailing how levitating pods sealed in a vacuum could whisk passengers and cargo across great distances at speeds of up to 750 miles per hour. With encouragement from Musk and SpaceX, several private companies are independently developing the technology.
So far, only unmanned prototype pods have actually been tested, at speeds far below the nigh-sonic velocities that planners promised. But that hasn’t stopped hyperloop proposals from multiplying rapidly. The Chicago-to-Cleveland route joins a growing roll call of planned hyperloop routes to major U.S. and international cities—and a much shorter list of projects tiptoeing towards reality. The partnership HTT announced is among a handful of first attempts by hyperloop companies to ink formal deals with government agencies to get the technology into the real world. Virgin Hyperloop One has offered its own Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh route as part of an ambitious 35-city “Vision For America.” And Missouri floated a Kansas-City-to-St.-Louis hyperloop link as part of its failed bid to lure Amazon’s second headquarters.
Why Cleveland? In a statement, La Mendola said HTT chose the Great Lakes region for its first U.S. route because of its manufacturing history. “We came here because places like Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh have the manufacturing, the raw materials, and the talented, hard working people in order to make it happen. We can source everything from this area. This is a place where you make big things.”
Hani Mahmassani, director of Northwestern University’s Transportation Center, said that, while Chicago might enjoy from the boost that comes with getting in early on an emerging hyperloop industry, it’s Cleveland that stands to benefit more economically. “It would allow Cleveland-based businesses greater access to the major corporate presence in Chicago and its emerging leadership role in technology.”
Jacqueline Jenkins, a civil engineering professor at Cleveland State University, welcomed the idea of finding alternatives to car-centric travel to and from the city, but wondered about how such a scheme would be funded. “We’re at a point within the transportation community as alternatives to driving your own vehicle are being explored with vigor,” she said. “I think this is a healthy market for exploring those opportunities. But the viability of those markets? I’m not sure. Given the current climate, we’re looking at potential legislation saying there will be less dollars for infrastructure, and there will be a push for private funding.”
Meanwhile, the Northeast’s hyperloop is also moving forward. After Elon Musk tweeted in July claiming to have “verbal” government approval to build a hyperloop between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., the Boring Company—his tunnel-digging and infrastructure company—has now in fact been granted a preliminary permit by Washington, D.C.’s Department of Transportation to start digging in an empty lot just north of the city’s Union Station, with a vague plan to build a hyperloop station there.
For the moment, what Musk has chiefly promised is to develop tunneling technology that’s faster and cheaper than what currently exists. The Boring Company already received a green light to build a two-mile test tunnel beneath SpaceX headquarters in Southern California, apparently not for hyperloop but for a form of quasi-public transit in which cars descend into underground tubes and get whisked along electric “skates.” The company recently went before Culver City Council to request to dig some more.
Will any of these projects happen? Musk, for his part, has certainly overpromised in the past. And even if hyperloop could be made to work and be commercially viable, would the resulting new transportation mode actually be good for society? That’s a bigger debate that urbanists and technologists are just beginning to have. Given that the technology is so new, public agencies may be hesitant to put taxpayer money toward the research until it is proven elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, the White House’s recent proposal for $1.5 trillion infrastructure stimulus does propose setting aside some federal funding for “transformative” projects that carry high risk. That certainly sounds like hyperloop.
Back in the real world, Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said no state funding is involved in the Chicago-Cleveland feasibility study and “no agreements are final.”
“We look forward to working with entrepreneurs to help them develop these concepts,” he said.