Accelerating U.S. high-speed rail development is consistently cited by transportation experts as the best possible investment in the country’s future—it would connect economic regions, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and boost rural economies. Even the most optimistic estimates say this will take decades and billions of dollars. But what if Hyperloop could do it sooner, and for a fraction of the cost?
That’s the proposal by Hyperloop One in its Vision for America strategy, a plan for 11 Hyperloop routes connecting 35 major cities announced last week. The routes are the U.S. finalists for a Hyperloop One competition, where teams submitted proposals for the most promising Hyperloop corridors around the world, based on estimated ridership and economic potential.
Hyperloop One says its new network would connect 83 million Americans, including routes linking Los Angeles to San Diego, Dallas to Austin, Texas, and a mega-route serving cities from Cheyenne to Houston.
In a post outlining Hyperloop One’s plan, Hyperloop One’s senior business analyst Rehi Alaganar compares the company’s vision to the country’s Interstate Highway System, built in 1956 with massive federal investment as the “backbone of commerce.” In fact, each proposal is attempting to solve a very specific regional challenge related to jobs, manufacturing, and the movement of goods. Boeing was cited as an example:
With a Hyperloop network extending out of the Seattle area, as proposed by one of the Global Challenge teams, employers such as Boeing, Amazon or Microsoft could access ten times the labor pool, reaching as far afield as Portland, Boise, and the San Francisco Bay area. Hyperloop would also allow Boeing to move new manufacturing facilities inland to a place such as southern Idaho, dropping its land cost by more than 50 percent.
This commerce-driven approach touted by Hyperloop One suggests that these routes will probably not be true public transit but will likely be paid for by privately funded partnerships. This might also endear Hyperloop One to the current administration; the two developers picked to head up President Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-announced trillion-dollar infrastructure plan both specialize in public-private partnerships.
In fact, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn recently name-checked Elon Musk’s tunnel-boring experiment as a good transportation infrastructure solution (although the boring work isn’t technically a Hyperloop project, Musk is often recognized as the visionary who publicized Hyperloop technology; he isn’t involved with any of the Hyperloop companies).
The promise of fast, efficient, sustainable transport is something that Hyperloop One has leveraged into a full-fledged media sensation (and don’t forget there are a handful of other entities developing their own Hyperloop technologies as well). But there are very real concerns when it comes to procuring the land under which Hyperloop will run, something that’s already an issue for established technology like high-speed rail.
Alaganar seems to anticipate this challenge in her post, noting that success will “require working closely with partners in government and transportation agencies to obtain all the certifications and regulatory approvals, as well as bottoms-up efforts with community leaders and advocates.” She also notes that four state Departments of Transportation—Nevada, Colorado, Florida, and Texas—are partners or sponsors for their proposals, which may make approvals easier in these places.
Hyperloop One’s technology will be on public display when a test track being built in the Nevada desert conducts its first full-scale test later this year. (The company will also be able to demonstrate the feasibility of its cost-per-mile claims.) After that, however, Hyperloop One will face its real test: convincing local governments, transportation planners, and hundreds of landowners that this brand-new idea is a better deal than tried-and-true high-speed rail.