About the only way to quickly travel from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago or Pittsburgh is to first head to John Glenn Columbus International Airport.
Transportation planners in the area would like to see other options. One of those being eyed is the Virgin Hyperloop One project, an ambitious futuristic concept that would transport passengers in capsule-like pods through tubes at jetliner speeds.
Columbus has been short-listed as a possible location for the hyperloop technology, connecting the Ohio capital to Chicago and Pittsburgh. Other route possibilities would link Kansas City, Mo., to St. Louis; as well as connect the Dallas-Fort Worth area to Austin and Laredo, Texas.
Early next year, officials with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) plan to finalize and present the Midwest Connect Feasibility Study and environmental impact report analyzing possible routes for the hyperloop, which is known in government parlance as the “Rapid Speed Transportation Initiative.” Hyperloop One, part of the Virgin umbrella of companies launched by tech and transportation visionary Richard Branson, is reviewing about 26,000 such proposals.
It’s important to note, say MORPC officials, that even if the region is not selected as a hyperloop site, the groundwork has been laid for the development of new transportation options.
“We didn’t just do hyperloop,” said Thea Walsh, director of transportation and infrastructure development at MORPC. “We did very advanced environmental analysis of the rail corridor through the study as well. So it’s kind of a means to an end, in that way.”
The Hyperloop opens opportunities on various levels, beyond just transportation, say company officials, noting economic development, sustainability goals and the cachet attached to being a leader in next-generation mobility.
The idea is to easily link cities — like Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago — to form “mega-regions,” said Ryan Kelly, head of global marketing and communications for Virgin Hyperloop One. Hyperloop routes would be designed not unlike transit lines, with stops along the way, allowing workers to maybe live in one city, but work in another city a couple hundred miles away.
Hyperloop One has been involved with traveling the country to meet with officials and stakeholders to raise awareness for the project. In Columbus, the team met with elected, transportation and planning officials, as well as possible investors.
“We definitely feel that there’s a huge opportunity to have this be a true [public-private partnership] model, in order to finance a project like this,” said Kelly.
“At this point in time, we’re having the stakeholder discussions. We’re talking about what the next steps are,” he added.
Virgin Hyperloop plans to develop a roughly six-mile demonstration track to validate the prototype and fine-tune passenger safety features. That location is yet to be determined. From there, they would potentially expand routes.
Being whisked into Chicago from downtown Columbus in a mere 30 minutes may sound dreamy, and even a far-off possibility. But the effort to get there has not been squandered. It has been one grounded in building relationships and laying the groundwork for new mobility options, whatever direction they may take, say officials.
“If anything, it’s a wonderful exercise in learning the parts that you have to bring together for good finance packages for projects,” she added. “And to think about how we’re going to have to fund transportation in the future, and that public-private partnership piece, this is really exercising all of that muscle and how to get those things to happen for our community.”