Missouri's effort to become the home of North America's first "hyperloop" service moved into a higher gear Monday afternoon, with the inaugural meeting of House Speaker Elijah Haahr's "Blue Ribbon Panel on Hyperloop."
The concept would allow high-speed, 500 mph or so, travel through vacuum-type tubes — with an estimated construction cost of $7 billion-$10 billion for a proposed system connecting Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis — and a 30-40 minute travel time between the state's two big cities.
Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe chairs the 29-member group that will tell Haahr, R-Springfield, this fall whether it's a feasible idea to get involved.
Kehoe told those attending Monday's meeting: "We want people who have differing opinions about what Hyperloop could, eventually, bring to us.
"So, we've tried to put as many people together as we can."
Andrew Smith, of St. Louis, serves as the panel's vice-chairman.
"A lot of people in this room have done a significant amount of work, just to get us to this point where we could take a serious look at what it would take to build this," he said,
Tom Blair, the Missouri Transportation Department's St. Louis district engineer, led a statewide MoDOT team in 2015-16 tasked with planning for the future which, he said, "We branded as 'Road to Tomorrow.'"
They submitted a proposal to a Los Angeles-based company called "Hyperloop One" — now known as "Virgin Hyperloop One" — that was one of 35 finalists from among more than 2,600 applications submitted from around the world.
Eventually, the discussions involved public and private business leaders from St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as University of Missouri System President Mun Choi.
Smith noted: "So often in our state, there has been this 'sibling rivalry' between Kansas City and St. Louis — there has been none of that in this project.
"The thing that I think has gotten all of us so excited about this is the opportunity to harness the power, and the potential, of both of these cities — instead of fighting against each other, actually working together, for a change, to do something big for the state."
Kansas City's Black and Veatch engineering firm did a feasibility study for the project, which Smith said "was the first in North America on this technology."
The company's Clint Robinson said their study started like other feasibility studies but, "it became more and more clear to me that this is an opportunity. (Now) we're bullish on Virgin Hyperloop One, and we think this project has a 'go.'
"And if there are barriers and hurdles, we want to be a part of the team that helps us figure out how we can overcome those."
Monday's meeting included the formation of several committees, and a discussion of plans to meet about once a month between now and September.
Kehoe told reporters the Hyperloop effort is in addition to maintaining and improving the state's highway system — and it will benefit the whole state, even if the route cuts through the middle of Missouri.
"The economic impact across the whole state will be incredible," the lieutenant governor said.
Kehoe said many people ask him if the Hyperloop concept is "real."
"It's as real as you want to make it," he told reporters. "The technology is definitely out there — and they're looking for a site to do it on.
"We want to recommend to (Haahr) whether we think it is feasible for Missouri to do this."
Mike Lally of Olsson Associates, a Kansas City firm that worked with Black and Veatch on the feasibility study, said he's heard the same question — and his answer is: "Why shouldn't it be? A hundred years ago, people wanted to fly airplanes — and look what happens today."
Choi, who has an engineering background, told reporters after Monday's meeting: "It's going to happen. It may not be for another five, 10 or 15 years — but (the technology) does exist."
He and others already have visited Devloop, a 1,500-meter test site near Las Vegas.
He said building a practical Hyperloop system over the 260-mile distance between downtown St. Louis and downtown Kansas City — with a stop in Columbia — "is actually easier" than the Nevada site, "because you have that extra pathway to be able to accelerate the vehicle to that (500 mph) level, and decelerate it to stop at the stations you need to stop at."
Choi said the engineering challenge is working with "constraints," like crossing the Missouri River or building over rocky bluffs — and the proposed project will be no different.
"(This) is a tremendous opportunity for the state to be at the forefront of this new technology, to transport people and goods," Choi said. "And we're very excited about the opportunity it presents for workforce development, and R&D (research and development) as well."
He looks forward to the University of Missouri system playing a role in the project research.
"We can get our students excited and our faculty members excited on the type of research that can create, let's say, the next-generation propulsion system (and) materials that are lighter, and stronger," he explained, than those available in transportation systems today.
And Choi said he'd welcome the opportunity to talk with Lincoln University officials — Missouri's other land-grant and statewide mission university — "to collaborate with them, to work with their faculty and to train their students."