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Staying in the loop

Staying in the loop

October 22nd, 2017 by Philip Joens in Missouri News

In this photo provided by Hyperloop One, the company's test track is seen in the Nevada desert.

A proposed hyperloop could change Missourians' perception of distance.

On some sunny day in the future, someone could wake up in Jefferson City, travel to a meeting in St. Louis, jet to Kansas City for lunch, and head to Branson for some sight-seeing, all before dinner.

Missouri, business, state and education leaders on Oct. 3 announced their support for a study that could determine whether building the ultra-fast ground transit system is possible. Since then, the proposal gained steam as the company that could build the hyperloop re-evaluated Missouri's proposal and state leaders incorporated it into their bids for Amazon's new headquarters.

Most of all, a hyperloop could be an economic engine for the state, according to officials with the Missouri Department of Transportation, and business and education leaders.

In June, Gov. Eric Greitens created the Governor's Innovation Task Force, which sought to make Missouri a better place for business by making it easier for companies to find employees and making the state a better place to live. Since then, state agencies, business groups and research institutions have tried to be proactive on projects like the hyperloop.

"In the depths of our funding issues, we wanted to make sure that as an organization we were looking to the future even through financial uncertainty to make sure that we were opening to the really exciting things that are coming," MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said.

If built, the proposed hyperloop could ferry riders between Kansas City and St. Louis along a 240-mile track in 25 minutes at 671 mph.

The hyperloop works like a monorail in an airless pipeline.

To reduce friction, the hyperloop's cars levitate above an electromagnetic rail, McKenna said. A vacuum takes the air out of the tube, creating an environment similar to the vacuum of space, further eliminating friction and drag.

"One of the main efficiencies gained is not having wind," McKenna said. "It requires a lot less energy to move through a chamber without having to push wind out of the way."

Passenger features, like safety features and cars, still need to be designed. McKenna said the hyperloop could transport only cargo for a period after completion.

Inspired by the vision of Tesla and SpaceX magnet Elon Musk, Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One is evaluating building about 10 routes around the world, including U.S. routes between Chicago and Pittsburgh along with Cheyenne, Wyoming-Denver and Dallas-Houston.

Its direct competitor is Musk's SpaceX Hyperloop, which is developing similar technology. Still, Hyperloop One appears to have the early edge. It was the first company to complete a full scale hyperloop test. During its recent second test July 29, its test vehicle reached 192 mph on a 500-meter test track in the Nevada desert.

In September, the company did not name the Missouri route as one of its 10 worldwide finalists in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, but it encouraged MoDOT to keep working on the project.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development announced Thursday it would support the Kansas City and St. Louis bids for Amazon's second headquarters and touted the hyperloop as a way to support both cities.

Hyperloop One did not respond to a News Tribune request for comment, but the state's recent efforts appear to have caught its eye. Hyperloop One Global Head of Policy Dan Katz told the Associated Press on Thursday the state is among the top three to five contenders for a hyperloop track.

MoDOT, the St. Louis Regional Chamber, the KC Tech Council, the University of Missouri System and the Missouri Innovation Center in Columbia announced plans Oct. 3 to conduct a feasibility study determining what would be needed to build a hyperloop. Leaders from all groups are looking for private funding now for the study.

The hyperloop itself likely would cost billions of dollars to build and be years away from completion. Documents obtained last October by Forbes showed Hyperloop One estimated a 107-mile route across the San Francisco Bay Area could cost $9 billion-$13 billion or $84 million-$121 million per mile.

Because of the high cost, McKenna stressed the majority of funding for the hyperloop would need to come from the private sector.

"We are realistic in our approach and with our funding situation," McKenna said. "We have to be cognizant and very aware that public resources being applied to this thing in a direct basis is not really possible. We're more of a facilitator than anything else."

Dan Mehan, director of the Jefferson City-based Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the hyperloop would tie the state's cities, towns and economy together like never before.

"For the state, it would be a game changer, Mehan said.

The hyperloop would follow the path of Interstate 70 across Missouri and make a stop in Columbia between Kansas City and St. Louis. Despite its location in the northern third of the state, Mehan said the route makes sense. He noted 70 percent of the state's population lives near I-70, and the hyperloop would tie together the two biggest cities.

Still, Mehan said, the hyperloop would shrink travel times for Missourians in places like Jefferson City by eliminating much of the driving currently done and making travel times quicker.

"It's just the most logical route," Mehan said.

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One of the state's biggest economic strengths, Mehan said, is the University of Missouri's agriculture program and other ag companies large and small based in the state. Building the hyperloop could make it easier to connect companies and research centers, he said.

University of Missouri System President Mun Choi threw the UM system's support behind the project. He agrees the hyperloop could help the system's ag schools by making it easier to connect its four campuses and research farms, like one in Kingdom City.

"It's going to allow people who enjoy working in a metropolitan area like Kansas City or St. Louis, but also live in a rural community, perhaps in Mexico, Missouri," Choi said. "It provides more options."

Choi said the university's schools recognize that to grow the state's economy, Missouri needs to invest heavily in infrastructure programs. He said the university's schools will lend resources and expertise to Hyperloop One and state leaders.

"Students, along with our faculty members, are going to be key drivers in innovation," Choi said. "Innovation is important not only for entrepreneurs who want to start businesses, but every company wants to be innovative so they can compete on the global marketplace."