How the Rocky Mountains Got a Head-Start in the Hyperloop Race

Colorado could be a transportation pioneer or the home of a hyperloop boondoggle.

Unsplash / Dan Gold

Interstate 25 cuts a north-south path through Colorado, backing up traffic to a stand-still on weekday afternoons in Denver, as commuters head home to the south suburbs of Douglas County, which grew by an astounding 3,647 percent between 1970 and 2015, from 8,600 to 322,000 people. The state’s population boom has resulted in aching congestion; a bumper-to-bumper nightmare beneath the serenity of the Rocky Mountains.

The mountains, “that’s the reason people live here,” Travis Boone, an engineer at AECOM, the multinational engineering firm, tells Inverse. Based in Denver, he’s an executive and member of the Rocky Mountain Hyperloop Consortium, a group that will see its proposed hyperloop route undergo a feasibility study by Hyperloop One, the Los Angeles-based start-up that, publicly anyway, is leading the race to build the first hyperloop, the tube-based transportation system dreamed up by Elon Musk and described in his 2013 whitepaper. Mountains are the reason people live in Colorado, but hyperloop pods could shuttle future generations to ski resorts from Texas in the same time it takes to drive to them from Denver today.

Hyperloop One is testing its system at the so-called "Dev Loop" north of Las Vegas. It's 500 meters long and 3.3 meters wide.

Hyperloop One

Hyperloop One’s execution of Musk’s transport idea is one where a sealed tube has nearly all of the air vacuumed out and a pod travels at a high speed (the latest public test hit 192 mph) inside it, sort of floating via magnetic levitation, powered by electricity. Musk predicts the pods will hit speeds of up to 700 mph, a revelation that would radically change how we think about distance and time. There are very big unknowns with a project of this scale using a technology that’s still being developed, though. Perhaps the two biggest are cost to build (more so if tunneling is required) and energy needed to power it — as well as where that energy could sustainably be sourced. A hyperloop today might crash the current power grid. Colorado could be a transportation pioneer or the home of a hyperloop boondoggle, but its backers are willing to find out.

While those questions are being answered, official considerations for routes are well underway: six in North America, two in the UK, and two in India were announced Thursday by Hyperloop One, which needs government support and funding if it’s to make a go of the project. And in front of the pack is the route that would connect Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Pueblo, Colorado, the company also announced. A Rocky Mountains hyperloop would span 360 miles and connect 4.8 million people.

The proposed hyperloop route from Rocky Mountain Hyperloop

Rocky Mountain Hyperloop

So how did Rocky Mountain Hyperloop jump straight to a feasibility study instead of merely determining “their commercial viability” that the other 9 routes are getting? From the start, it got buy-in from the state’s government. Back in April, when Hyperloop One invited 11 teams from around the country to show off their proposed routes at a “global challenge” event in Washington, D.C., along with Boone was Shailen Bhatt, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. Crucially for Hyperloop One, state governments can determine how to spend federal transportation funds, in addition to its own state money — not to mention the built-in political leverage that comes with it.

One need to only look back to the work of Robert Moses, the New York City official who held 12 titles simultaneously but wasn’t actually elected. He pushed through public transportation initiatives that shaped how New Yorkers move to this day. Moses was a polarizing figure — his enemies might have lived in the path of a planned expressway — and is perhaps the most extreme example of how government can transform transportation.

Few of the other groups that proposed a hyperloop route to the company had the sort of government support that the Rocky Mountain group could claim. That made the difference, says Dan Katz, policy director for Hyperloop One.

“What Colorado is doing is turning ideas on paper into action, and that’s the kind of leadership we need to from other governments to make these projects a reality,” Katz tells Inverse.

Katz, who worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Obama administration, adds this: “I had a call from a governor’s office before I even ate my Wheaties this morning,” when asked if Hyperloop One had received governmental requests for more information about a route in their area after Hyperloop One’s announcement.

When asked if Hyperloop One foresees states levying a “hyperloop tax” to pay for projects, Katz thinks a shared arrangement is most likely.

“We don’t envision a hyperloop tax,” he says, adding that “there’s a trend toward public-private partnerships.”

Boone, the AECOM executive, says the Rocky Mountain hyperloop idea was the brainchild of his colleague Alan Eckman, and Peter Kozinski of the state’s department of transportation. Eckman explains his motivation for a Colorado hyperloop project as such:

“We need to continually innovate as a transportation industry,” Eckman tells Inverse, adding that futuristic mobility like hyperloop “can help transform mobility and the economy in Colorado, and it can also help translate new possibilities to the rest of the world.”

Hyperloop One is just one company working to develop the high-speed tube transport system. A representative for Hyperloop One declined to comment its newest competitor: the originator of the idea. Musk, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO, launched in earnest this year cheekily named Boring Company, the main purpose of which is to bore a network of 3D tunnels beneath the surface to alleviate traffic congestion above ground.

Inside those tunnels would scoot skates with cars on them — see video above — and also, hyperloop pods. Musk even teased in July that he had received “verbal government approval” — whatever that means — to build an underground hyperloop between New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. If he pulled it off, it’d go right up there with the work of Moses.

There’s also Transpod, the Canadian hyperloop startup, and Arrivo, another hyperloop startup founded by Brogan BamBrogan, a former SpaceX engineer who co-founded Hyperloop One but left the company after a bizarre lawsuit that involved a hangman’s noose. There’s also a magnetic-levitation train being developed to compete with Musk’s East Coast route.

But all transportation projects require the buy-in of governments, which is why Colorado is out in front. Dallas-Houston, Miami-Orlando, and Chicago-Pittsburgh routes are also being considered — but a thorough feasibility study has already been confirmed for the Colorado route.

So what’s next for Colorado?

“It’s a little fuzzy, we’re still kind of working on those details,” Boone says. “We just found out we won [a few days ago]. We’re talking several months of work to develop a feasibility study to figure out what the best route is. The maps of where the route should be is like crayons-on-paper-level work. We have to take it to the next level.”

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