Hyperloop: Michigan Asked to Fund Feasibility Study for Route

The slow march toward ultra-fast transit might be speeding up. A public records request has revealed the startup Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has asked the Michigan Department of Transportation to fund a feasibility study for the state’s portion of a potential hyperloop route linking the midwestern cities of Chicago, Detroit, and Toledo.

Crain’s Detroit Business obtained the relevant emails through a Freedom of Information Act request, which also found that HTT and Michigan officials have been in contact in the last two weeks. The HTT design calls for an above-ground route that would connect Toledo to Detroit and then onto the Chicago area, though it appears the planned western terminus would actually be on the Indiana side of that state’s border with Illinois.

It’s not yet known whether the Michigan Department of Transportation will pay to undertake the study, though the records do indicate state officials are open to discussing the possibility with HTT. The startup also announced last month that agreements were in place with the Illinois transportation department and North Ohio Areawide Coordinating Committee to do feasibility studies on their portions of the route.

All this could represent a positive step forward for HTT in terms of its overall strategy. The company has relied on a crowd-sourced engineering team and a string of splashy-sounding announcements, but the lack of public demonstrations for its concepts has led to accusations that the company offers little more than vaporware. While a competitor like Virgin Hyperloop One has been able to fund the construction of its own test track, it’s certainly valid for HTT to seek a private-public partnership to make more tangible progress on its hyperloop plans.

According to Crain’s, HTT’s estimated cost of a mile of track is between $20 million and $45 million, meaning the construction of just a Chicago-Detroit link would run in the $6 billion to $13.5 billion range. As with most infrastructure projects — especially those involving a novel technology like the hyperloop — the actual costs would likely be far, far greater than that.

Beyond the questions of price, a feasibility study would also look to establish whether the route could actually work as designed. Detroit-based architect Michael Kirk told Crain’s that the above-ground nature of HTT’s design could be a big stumbling block, given the cold winters in the Midwest.

“I think technically, if [HTT is] talking truly about hyper-speed, 700 miles an hour, I don’t think you would be doing that above ground in Michigan just because there would be too many issues with weather and movement of the track due to the freeze-thaw,” he said. “A tunnel would be a far more stable environment.”

What this all means for HTT and its hyperloop plans remains an open question. But it does appear the startup — to say nothing of competitors like Virgin Hyperloop One and Elon Musk’s own Boring Company, which is beginning preliminary work on its own small route in Maryland — is moving from talking about talking about building a hyperloop to simply talking about building a hyperloop. It’s not quite the real thing yet, but it’s definitely progress.