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Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago hyperloop route set to begin preliminary studies

Aaron Aupperlee
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Steve Marcus/Reuters
Journalists and guests look over tubes following a propulsion open-air test at Hyperloop One in North Las Vegas.
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Kamran Jebreili/AP
An Emirati man passes by a poster presenting Hyperloop Dubai, The Future of Mass Transit at the Dubai Future Accelerators in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. A competition designing a system of tubes to zip people past Dubai’s skyscraper-studded skyline near the speed of sound is more than a pipe dream for this desert sheikdom long fascinated with the future — and with being the first ones there.

A proposed hyperloop route between Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago has surged ahead of other similar projects around the country.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission last week announced it had selected consultants to lead feasibility and environmental impact studies for the Rapid-Speed Transportation Initiative, which could use hyperloop technology to connect major cities in the Midwest.

It is the first time a hyperloop will be considered in an environmental impact study and puts the route about a year or two ahead of other similar projects, said Thea Walsh, transportation systems and funding director at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the head of the hyperloop project.

“We are the only ones in the United States at this point,” Walsh said.

Virgin Hyperloop One selected the Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago route in September as one of the 10 winners of its Hyperloop One Global Challenge.

Dan Katz, head of public policy and North American projects for Virgin Hyperloop One, said embarking on both the feasibility and environmental impact study puts the project ahead of others from the top 10.

Katz said the company was impressed with the vision and innovation of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission; saw the need for better transportation across the Midwest, especially freight; and was excited about working with Pittsburgh.

Katz said Virgin Hyperloop One considers Pittsburgh a center for transportation technology.

“We know there is a ton of talent there,” Katz said. “We know we’re going to rely on local suppliers, local talent. We’re going to need engineers on the ground.”

Hyperloop systems work by shooting a pod through a tube with a near vacuum inside. In the near vacuum, only a small amount of propulsion is needed to push the tubes to speeds of 700 mph and more. In its latest test in December, Virgin Hyperloop One’s pod reached 240 mph and stopped within a 500-meter test track in the Mojave Desert in Nevada.

Katz said the company hopes to have a working system by 2023. Walsh didn’t know when the Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago route could be completed but suspected it would be after 2023.

The technology could allow people to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago in less than 45 minutes, though its first use along the route will likely be to move freight.

“It could mean quite a bit for the economies in Pittsburgh and Columbus,” Walsh said.

The global engineering firm AECOM will lead the feasibility study for the Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago route. The Canadian firm WSP will lead the environmental impact study.

Both studies will compare hyperloop technology to high-speed rail.

The studies are expected to cost $2.5 million total, Walsh said. The initial contracts total $300,000 for AECOM and $400,000 for WSP. Walsh expected the feasibility study to take nine months and the environmental impact study to take 12 months.

Other hyperloop projects, including one from Kansas City to St. Louis and one in Colorado, have started feasibility studies. No one has started an environmental impact study, Katz and Walsh said.

Katz said the studies can begin even though his company and others haven’t perfected hyperloop technology. The studies will look at the infrastructure needed for hyperloop, the tubes, the pylons that hold up the tubes, the limited tunneling need and the impact it could have on wildlife.

Katz hoped the Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago route will follow existing rail and highway right-of-ways, and he predicted noise and pollution from hyperloop will be much less than from traditional and high-speed rail.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review assistant news editor. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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