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Experts: Hyperloop Not Ready To Zip Across The Great Lakes Yet

A map of proposed options for a Hyperloop route between Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago. [Transportation Economics and Management Systems]
A map of proposed options for a Hyperloop route between Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago.

Experts say local governments and entrepreneurs still have to answer many questions about proposed Hyperloops that promise to whiz passengers hundreds of miles in a matter of minutes though vacuum tubes.

The foremost of those questions: Will Hyperloop actually work?

“There’s a big difference between theory and reality,” said Harvey Miller, the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Ohio State University. “Even if it works on a test track in Nevada, will it scale to inter-city distances?”

Local leaders hope a $1.3 million feasibility study released Monday will lead to some answers. The report concluded the benefits of ultra-high-speed travel between Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh would justify a possible $30 billion cost.

The study examined three possible routes, including one that would tunnel beneath Lakes Erie and Michigan. Other proposed routes plot the Hyperloop tube along existing highways.

But before Hyperloop zips 480 miles from the Steel City to the Windy one, it will have to move 320 meters down Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ test track in Toulouse, France. HTT founder and CEO Dirk Ahlborn said the company has tested components separately and will attempt a manned drive next year.

“We built the world’s first passenger Hyperloop capsule, which is basically like building an airplane, because you need to build a pressure vessel,” Ahlborn said. “So that’s already in Toulouse, now it’s getting the capsule inside the tube and moving it.”

Miller, a professor of geography at OSU, said in a phone interview that he would prefer to see more investment in high-speed rail rather than in “chasing after an unproven technology.”

HTT's test track in Toulouse, France. [Hyperloop Transportation Technologies]

The test track in France may be “too modest in scope” to prove to transportation experts that Hyperloop is workable, according to Joseph Schwieterman, who directs the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago.

He said other questions remain, too: Would the federal government put money behind Hyperloop? How quickly can a project acquire land?

Still, Schwieterman said the Cleveland-to-Chicago proposal is “worth hearing out.” The flat terrain between the two cities may make the area a good location for a demonstration project, he said.

“A lot of us are watching this and rooting for it,” he told ideastream. “We’d like to see it work. We think it indeed could be a great economic engine to improve the Midwest connectivity.”

Consultants from Transportation Economics and Management Systems (TEMS) prepared the study. The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which distributes federal money for transportation projects, funded it with the help of the Cleveland Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

TEMS President Alexander Metcalf said at the news conference that a Hyperloop could be built without government funding “if necessary.” But he said he believed a “public-private partnership” was a better approach. He said Hyperloop developers could look to teacher pension funds, trade union funds, investment banks and hedge funds for capital.  

P.S. Sriraj, the Director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told ideastream in a phone interview that the project could reduce its costs substantially if it relies on existing rights-of-way.

“If the land is essentially provided at no cost or little cost because it is already existing right-of-way, then you are reducing the cost by 50 percent, close to,” he said. “If the land cost is also something that the provider has to bear, then it may become very, very untenable.”

Sriraj is a member of a stakeholder group on the project and has received periodic updates throughout the study period, he said. 

The study considers fares ranging from 25 cents to $1.08 per mile, or about $80 to $340 to travel from Cleveland to Chicago. It also contemplates raising revenue by shipping freight along the Hyperloop tube.

Local leaders have cheered on the Hyperloop effort. U.S. Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Tim Ryan, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish and Valarie McCall, a top aide to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, delivered speeches Monday at the Great Lakes Science Center to mark the study’s release.

That support may come in handy for the next phase of the project: an environmental impact study slated to wrap up in 2023. NOACA is seeking $5 million in federal and private funding for that report, Executive Director Grace Gallucci said.

Gallucci, who has championed the local effort to study and build a Hyperloop, acknowledged there’s still plenty of healthy skepticism to be had.

“Because it is still an ‘if,’” she said. “But if it actually happens, we want to be there leading the way to do that.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.