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Missouri vies for high-speed travel

Speaker Haahr is on a mission for Hyperloop in Missouri

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Imagine it’s 2030, and the nearly four-hour drive between Kansas City and St. Louis can be traveled in 30 minutes or less.

The high-speed transportation isn’t by a plane – it’s a futuristic, pod-like capsule that levitates inside a steel, vacuum tube. And it can travel at speeds up to 700 miles per hour.

This technology is the Hyperloop, and it’s what House of Representatives Speaker Elijah Haahr, R- Springfield, is trying to bring to Missouri with his Blue Ribbon Panel on Hyperloop.

But before the commercial routes can be built, there’s more to learn about the technology.

Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One sent out a request for proposals in early November, asking states and local governments to bid for a chance to host a certification center, where officials will test the infrastructure on a 6- to 10-mile track and determine regulatory and safety standards.

Haahr said he anticipates responses from both St. Louis and Kansas City. Andrew Smith, vice chairman of the panel, said the state also will submit a response, led by Dr. Mun Choi of the University of Missouri.

Missouri officials have had their sights set on this technology for some time now.

Haahr’s panel, assembled in March, released a report prior to the RFP, detailing how the state could win the certification track. The report also discussed how the panel could make Missouri the center of the nation’s Hyperloop system.

In October 2018, Missouri released the nation’s first feasibility study of the Hyperloop, authored by Kansas-based Black & Veatch.

“We have been unyielding in our efforts to get this technology in Missouri,” Haahr said.

The economic impact
What would it mean for Missouri to have 700-mile-an-hour transportation?

With a full-length track, it would cut the 4-hour cross-state drive time into a standard commute. That means Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis could benefit from a labor force of 2.7 million workers, according to the report.

“It would fundamentally change the way we view living arrangements in the United States,” Haahr said. “It changes everything as we know it.”

Kristen Hammer, business development manager at Virgin Hyperloop One, said she traveled across the country with the technology in tow during a roadshow this summer. During a stop at the University of Missouri, Hammer said she spoke with students, mostly from the Kansas City or St. Louis areas.

“Watching their eyes light up when I told them that they could get home in 15 minutes, and it wouldn’t break the bank – it was just great,” Hammer said.

Hyperloop One hasn’t determined a retail cost for the high-speed transportation, but Hammer said it would essentially be equivalent to the cost of gas for driving the same distance. For the proposed Missouri route, she said a one-way ticket could be $30-$40.

“It needs to be affordable or else people can’t take it all the time,” Hammer said. “This isn’t some elite mode of travel for the filthy rich. It’s for everybody to get around every day.”

The Missouri panel found the Hyperloop system could create an annual economic impact of up to nearly $3.7 billion statewide. That includes the 7,600 to 17,200 jobs the full-scale technology could create, according to the report.

The technology also could alleviate the strain on the interstate system. On average, the state spends $5.9 million a year to keep Interstate 70 in operational shape, but the report said reduction in vehicle miles traveled because of the Hyperloop could save up to $2 million annually.

But it would cost a pretty penny. The panel’s report estimates the buildout would cost between $7.3 billion and $10.9 billion.

Haahr said the state wouldn’t touch the transportation or infrastructure funding for this multibillion-dollar project. Instead, the panel suggests establishing a public-private partnership, alongside investment from Hyperloop One. The company has received close to $400 million in private funding, according to its website.

“Our goal is to find new funding sources to try to bring this technology to Missouri,” Haahr said. “It will not take away from anything.”

Smith said the potential economic impact is significant, but the biggest impression would be on the state’s image worldwide.

“If we are able to secure this, we are the state that brings this technology into the world. That will establish us as a global tech and innovation leader,” Smith said. “It’s hard to put a value on that.”

The timeline
The certification center won’t be Hyperloop One’s first buildout. The company built its Development Loop, aka DevLoop, outside of Las Vegas in 2017. It used the track to create its concept on a smaller scale.

“That was a very good proof of concept to show the world that we were real,” Hammer said of the DevLoop. “But we’ve done some evolutions to the technology since then, and we need to have a facility where we can prove to regulators that our technology is safe.”

Hammer said the buildout of the certification center doesn’t guarantee the company will create a full-length track in that area.

Conceptual proposals are due mid-December, with final proposals due by the end of February, she said. Hyperloop officials will announce the winner of the bid in the summer and hope to break ground by 2021, she said. There’s a possibility the company and its technology could have regulatory approval by 2024, which she said would mean commercial track buildout and operations could begin between 2028 and 2030.

The certification center would employ about 200 people and construction of the test track could lead to several thousands of jobs, Hammer said.

Smith said he believes the top three states vying for the technology are Missouri, Texas and Ohio.

“It’s clear we’ve done more work than anyone else,” Smith said, pointing to the 172-page report and the nation’s first feasibility study.

The government of Maharashtra in India recently initiated the public procurement process for the world’s first hyperloop project, said Sarah Lawson, marketing project manager for Virgin Hyperloop One. The route would connect the 3-hour distance from Mumbai to Pune. She said the company is hopeful to break ground on the project in the next few months.

Hammer declined to comment on the top contenders in the United States but noted the team has spoken in depth with groups from Ohio, Texas and Missouri.

“Being the center for research and design on the certification track would make us one of the most attractive places to bring students, engineers and up-and-coming startups,” Haahr said. “My job as speaker of the House is to make sure that we get that technology in Missouri.”

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