Hyperloop panel prioritizes test track for Missouri, seeks MU leadership on technology

A state panel released a report Monday detailing how best to bring hyperloop technology to Missouri.

The report outlines next steps for the state, including the establishment of a test track, collaboration with research institutions around the country, recognition of a regulating body and exploration of funding opportunities.

Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Hyperloop earlier this year with the goal of producing a report that informs decision makers of the process for bringing the transportation technology to Missouri.

Hyperloop is a transportation system currently under development that involves a pod magnetically levitated inside a tube. This reduces friction and over long distances would allow the pod to reach speeds around 670 mph, according to Virgin Hyperloop One, a company developing the technology. That would reduce travel time between St. Louis and Kansas City to around 25 minutes.

The Blue Ribbon Panel’s objectives were to establish Missouri as “a global epicenter for research and development of this technology,” saying it would benefit higher education and advanced manufacturing sectors, and to study how global funding of civil infrastructure projects could be applied to a potential Missouri hyperloop system.

Creating another transportation hub

Missouri has long been a center for transportation in the U.S., the report points out, serving as a major hub for highway traffic, river cargo and railroads due to its location in the center of the country. The panel is hoping to continue that trend with the establishment of a hyperloop route in Missouri.

The panel notes the hyperloop project would align well with the Missouri 2030 plan, which was published by the Missouri Chamber Foundation in 2015. It was a strategic plan to drive job creation, wage growth and economic productivity in the state. The hyperloop report said establishment of the hyperloop in Missouri could bring between 7,000 and 17,000 new jobs to the state, increase real estate values, restructure key industry clusters, increase tax revenue and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 530,000 metric tons.

The biggest pull of the hyperloop to Missouri for the panel is the idea of creating a “megaregion” connecting St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City. The report claims that linking the cities via hyperloop would put them into a single metro area and combine labor sources and research capacity, putting the region among the top 10 economic megaregions in the country.

In a detailed economic impact analysis, the panel highlights the importance of the hyperloop route connecting to the University of Missouri, which would be able to provide St. Louis and Kansas City with a pool of highly skilled workers, new training resources and research capacity. The report said the combined labor force would be close to 2.7 million workers.

Funding hyperloop

The panel estimates the cost to build a hyperloop in Missouri could be $30 to $40 million per mile, or a total of $7.3 to $10.4 billion.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Department of Transportation said the state ranks 48th nationally in revenue per mile, making transportation infrastructure significantly underfunded in Missouri, even though it has the nation’s seventh-largest highway system. Last year, voters rejected Proposition D, which would have increased infrastructure funding by raising the state’s gas tax by 10 cents over four years. The panel said in the report a hyperloop would take some travelers off the road, reducing the cost to maintain highways, which would allow the state to use the money more effectively.

The panel recommends the designation of a project sponsor, which will be in charge of handling the funding of such a large infrastructure project. The sponsor would “oversee the public interest, develop the initial finance plan, and procure the private sector partners to mitigate risk to the taxpayers,” according to the report.

The panel also expects the use of a public-private partnership. However, it clarifies that legislature would need to confirm that a tubed transport system is eligible for such a funding plan.

Attracting a test track

The panel suggests the most important next step for Missouri to become a global epicenter of hyperloop technology is to win the bid for a national certification track, which would be a test track to prove hyperloop technology is viable over longer distances.

The first place to get a test track would likely be the first place to establish a commercial track, according to the report, because it would become a logical place for future investment.

“There will be no prize for second place,” the report said. “If Missouri is to meet the Speaker’s objective of becoming the global epicenter for the research, development, and certification of tubed transport technology, it must focus on becoming the regulatory certification site for this new technology.”

The panel said it would be beneficial to include international collaborators in the test track as it would open up the option of foreign investment and funding.

The track would start around one to three miles long in order to test “core technology components,” which would be significantly larger than current testing facilities in Nevada (about 500 meters) and the Netherlands (about 30 meters), according to the report. The test track would eventually reach 12 to 15 miles for full testing.

Establishing a regulatory body

Before any steps can be taken, though, Missouri must establish a governing body to regulate hyperloop technology, the report said. Many arguments could be made for oversight from existing transportation administrations, but the report said there is a separate organization to determine this.

In the last year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the creation of the Non-traditional and Emerging Transportation Technologies Council, which aims to coordinate stakeholders to manage new transit technologies. While the report said the council is in charge of finding the best way to do this, the panel recommends that the hyperloop should be regulated by an existing administration, not an entirely new administration, because it would make the process much more efficient.

MU looks to lead

Officials announced the publication of the report Monday at the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe was in attendance as the chairman of the panel. Sen. Caleb Rowden and University of Missouri System President Mun Choi also spoke at the event as members of the panel.

During the announcement event, MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright spoke highly of the MU College of Engineering and its involvement in efforts to bring hyperloop technology to the state.

“This will change society,” Cartwright said, “and there’s no better place than Missouri, there’s no better institution than the University of Missouri.”

The hyperloop report suggests MU should take the lead in establishing an “International Tube Transport Center of Excellence,” which would bring together universities around the country to focus on to benefit the industry as a whole, rather than just with specific technology providers.

Bill Turpin is the interim associate vice chancellor for economic development at MU and director of the Missouri Innovation Center in Columbia. He is also a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel, and said having the hyperloop go through Columbia would be a great opportunity to get students and younger people involved, establishing a base for the technology moving forward.

“This could be like Detroit is for automakers; Columbia, Missouri, could be what it is for tubed transportation,” Turpin said. “It could be the center where a lot of that really happens.”

Virgin Hyperloop One sees potential

In 2017, Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One announced 10 prospective locations for its first track, and Missouri didn’t make the list. Public and private backers in Missouri responded by forming the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition, commissioning a hyperloop feasibility study and establishing the Blue Ribbon Panel.

“We’re always looking to work with enthusiastic people who have promising routes. So Missouri came to us right after we narrowed it down to our winning routes and said, ‘wait, we want in on this,” said Kristen Hammer, business development manager at Virgin Hyperloop One. “Since, they’ve just worked very hard and very productively.”

Hammer said the first commercial track from Virgin Hyperloop One, wherever its first location ends up, could be open in eight to 10 years.

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