That 28-minute Hyperloop trip from Kansas City to St. Louis is still a long way from reality. But it edged a bit closer Tuesday as the Speaker of the Missouri House announced formation of a “Blue Ribbon” panel to explore the specifics of funding and construction.
The public-private group, chaired by Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, is tasked with finding ways of making Missouri the location of the nation’s first Hyperloop track. It will hold public hearings (in Jefferson City, St. Louis and Kansas City) and report findings to Speaker Elijah Haahr by September.
“We are early in the process but ahead of the game when it comes to this issue,” Haahr said at a news conference Tuesday morning. “The other states that have at least considered this option are significantly behind where we’re at, at this point,”
Haahr and Kehoe stressed that the panel was a preliminary step and no state funds have been appropriated. But interest in the venture remains high. Haahr said he visited Nevada to see the working model of the technology built by Virgin Hyperloop One in the desert near Las Vegas.
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The Hyperloop is a pod in a tube track that levitates above magnets and is propelled by electric power. The pods can reach speeds of 700 miles per hour.
Last fall, a feasibility study by the Kansas City engineering firm Black & Veatch concluded that Hyperloop’s construction in Missouri is realistically possible, at a minimum cost of $7 billion to $10 billion. The study also said it would cost less per-ride than the cost of gas to drive the same distance.
“I think Missouri is in a fantastic position,” Kehoe said. “You know, we’re the state that funded the first flight with Lindbergh, first transatlantic flight...We’re the state that produced the engineers that helped put man on the moon. We’re a state that has the ingenuity, technology, the resources to look at what’s next for the future.”
The project’s biggest boon to Missouri would be in the form of economic development, said panel Vice-Chair Andrew Smith of the St. Louis Regional Chamber.
“Imagine being able to travel between Kansas City and St. Louis in 28 minutes. That’s what this would allow. Effectively what this would do is unify the state, creating a single economic development mega-region that would make us competitive with some of the top economic development mega-regions in the country,” Smith said.
The combined populations of Kansas City and St. Louis is about 5 million people. If the two were connected with this technology, Smith said, “You’re talking about an area that really has the same kind of potential as a Boston or a Bay Area or a Seattle.”
Members of the Blue Ribbon Panel include State Senators Caleb Rowden, Brian Williams and Tony Luetkemeyer, Representatives Travis Fitzwater and Derek Grier, Director of Economic Development Rob Dixon, University of Missouri President Mun Choi, and other private sector leaders and subject matter experts from around the state.
Critics of Hyperloop say it’s unproven and still something out of science fiction. Although test tracks have been built and demonstrated, they say the technology is a long way from full development. Construction would be prohibitively expensive and that while it may bring in a wealth of jobs and business to cities, it could leave rural areas in the dust.
“First of all they won’t get left behind. We can’t build a hyperloop everywhere in the state like we can build an interstate system,” Haahr said. “What we have to do is -- we’ve never built one anywhere in the country -- we have to have one that has to go first, and once we build that we can go from there.”
Missouri is in a uniquely attractive position to build the Hyperloop, Haahr said, because the Interstate 70 corridor is flat, connects the state’s two largest cities and has the state’s largest university in the middle.
One reporter elicited laughs from the crowd, but not from the panel, when he asked how they would respond to those wondering if they’re on drugs to even consider the possibility of building a Hyperloop in the state.
“The same thing we said 200 years ago when the idea of a federal interstate system was being discussed. Sure. Is it a really big project? Absolutely. But it’s also a transformative project,” Haahr said.