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Colorado hyperloop challenges? 3 major hurdles among big possibilities

September 29, 2017 Updated: October 1, 2017 at 12:51 pm
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A rendering of the Hyperloop system. Passengers board a bus-sized capsule, which is then shot through a tube at speeds upwards of 700 mph using electric propulsion and magnetic levitation. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation and AECOM.

Imagine a morning commute from Colorado Springs to Denver in 10 minutes.

Just a quick break to respond to emails, read the morning paper and finish up that first cup of coffee from a passenger seat of a bus-like pod as magnetic levitation lifts the capsule and electric propulsion sends it whooshing through a tube to Colorado's capitol city.

And no traffic jams.

The proposition, more like a detail in a science fiction novel than anything in today's transportation landscape, gained momentum in September when the state's transportation department announced it would be partnering with Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One to see if it's possible to build such a system from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Pueblo.

Experts say the proposal raises many questions that won't be easy to answer, including who would foot the estimated $24 billion bill to build a 360-mile "hyperloop" system along the Front Range.

The route is one of 10 across the globe that the company, which says the tube transit technology it's advancing will one day carry passengers and cargo at speeds upwards of 700 mph, is considering as the site of one of its first systems. The Colorado Department of Transportation will help pay for a feasibility study, expected to cost between $500,000 and $1 million.

A map of the "Rocky Mountain Hyperloop" system proposed by the Colorado Department of Transportation and AECOM engineering company for Hyperloop One's "Global Challenge." The high-speed tube transportation developer selected the route as one of ten around the world that it will consider as the site for one of its first systems. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation and AECOM.  

Supporters of the technology have touted hyperloop as an energy-efficient, next-generation way to get around. But if Hyperloop One hopes to achieve its goal of having three operational systems by 2021, it has to overcome a long list of regulatory, logistical, political and financial obstacles before an unproven technology becomes a fully-functioning transportation option.

"These are major engineering challenges for something we've never done before," said Dave Clute, a Hyperloop advocate and Denver-based architectural engineer. "There's lots of unknown, lots of risks, but also a lot of potential."

THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN HYPERLOOP

The Colorado Department of Transportation and AECOM engineering company have proposed a 40-mile line from Denver International Airport to Greeley as the first phase of a hyperloop system that eventually would connect Colorado and Wyoming, with a westward excursion to Vail and other areas along the I-70 corridor. The state's transportation department shelled out about $40,000 to commission the 24-page proposal, submitted in response to Hyperloop One's "Global Challenge," which called for route recommendations from agencies and organizations around the world.

The submittal boasts that such a development would spur job and population growth, transforming the Front Range "into a 200-mile-long mega-region and economic powerhouse" where residents could easily live in remote small towns and work in bustling urban areas. The hyperloop system would attract more than 227,000 residents to the region, including an estimated 90,000 people to Colorado Springs, according to the proposal.

"If the science works, it's going to change our world forever," said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, a vocal proponent of building a Front Range passenger rail. "I think it's really neat that Colorado is going to be on the front end of this exploration."

The feasibility study, which state transportation officials aim to complete within a year, will examine the demand for such a system, provide additional cost estimates and consider financing options, said CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford. Such a venture likely would be paid for through a public-private partnership, with private investors providing the bulk of the money for the project and public agencies chipping in some funds, Ford said.

The analysis also will delve into the logistical challenges and the roles regulatory agencies at the state and federal levels might play in formulating safety protocols, standards and policies for an entirely new mode of tube transportation.

"We plan for 20 to 40 years in the future, and we very honestly say that we would be remiss if we weren't thinking actively about how technology could be changing our transportation landscape," Ford said.

CDOT faces an annual budget shortfall of about $1 billion needed to improve Colorado's highway system. As state leaders struggle to find the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to widen Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock, local officials are scratching their heads over where bike lanes should be built in Colorado Springs. Given the circumstances, some are skeptical of CDOT's willingness to use public funds to assess whether a fledgling technology could be a practical transportation solution in the foreseeable future.

"I'm happy that the question is being investigated, and I'm happy that it's not my money that's paying for it," said Jim Moore, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, who specializes in new transportation technologies. "This doesn't strike me as an important enough question that the taxpayers in Colorado should be trying to pay for it."

AN EMERGING TECHNOLOGY

When Hyperloop One completed its second test run in July, it sent a pod rushing through a tube a distance of 437 meters with maximum speeds of about 190 mph. With a longer track and more devices to help propel the capsule, it could have reached the speed of sound, according to a post on the company website.

"There's always a natural skepticism whenever you innovate," Dan Katz, Hyperloop One's transportation policy counsel and head of North American projects, said in an interview last month. "That's the biggest obstacle: people understanding that today, in the 21st century, we don't need to just simply rely on systems that we've relied on for 150 years. We can innovate. We can get people places faster with less energy being used, with a smoother ride that's more convenient."

A rendering of the Hyperloop system. Passengers board a bus-sized capsule, which is then shot through a tube at speeds upwards of 700 mph using electric propulsion and magnetic levitation. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation and AECOM.  

The concept of high-speed transport using magnetic levitation and electric propulsion within a low-pressure tube was dubbed "hyperloop" by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk in a 2013 paper. While many say the idea has been around for ages, Musk's paper piqued the interest of innovators, catalyzing the formation of a new industry devoted to making the futuristic mode of transit a reality.

Another high-speed tube transportation developer, Fort Collins-based Loop Global Inc., is considering Colorado Springs as the site of a test track for a similar brand of technology that has roots in Colorado.

Loop Global's test track, which would be paid for with about $25 million in private funds, would use what is known as Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies, or ET3, said CEO D Worthington. While the science used to levitate and propel the tube is the same used by Hyperloop, Worthington and other proponents of ET3 say it's faster and cheaper. One reason for the lower cost is that the system's components are smaller; it would carry passengers and cargo in car-sized capsules instead of bus-sized pods, Worthington said.

The first patent for ET3 was granted to Daryl Oster, based in Longmont, in the late 1990s. Loop Global is part of Oster's consortium, the ET3 Global Alliance.

Worthington hopes to choose a project site by the end of next year, with the goal of opening up the track to the public by 2021. The line, likely to be at least three miles long, would serve as an interactive demonstration. Members of the public would be able to ride for about $100.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, Mayor John Suthers, and other elected officials and community leaders expressed support for a test track in Colorado Springs in July in a letter to the Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership, a coalition of businesses and professionals exploring the technology's potential.

Loop Global plans to move on to developing a full-scale intercity system once the test track is built, possibly in Colorado, Worthington said.

"When you look at the population numbers and density and distribution of people in the Front Range, it makes absolute sense for tube transportation to be deployed here first," he said. "It's almost an ideal situation."

OTHER HURDLES BEFORE HYPERLOOP

Working out the technological kinks will likely be the least of Hyperloop One's worries, transportation and engineering experts say. The project's hefty price tag and the need to procure land rights are likely to be bigger challenges, said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance for the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

How much it would cost to ride the Hyperloop system is still unclear, raising questions about how the system would stack up against other available modes of transportation, such as air travel and passenger rail, and if the demand to carry passengers or haul freight would be enough to pay off such a massive investment.

"It's an opportunity cost - do you want to spend a lot of money on that particular intercity passenger system, or do you want to spend it on maintaining and improving the systems that we have?" Lewis said. "We have to remember that we already have a system that works pretty well for intercity transportation, and that's aviation."

It usually takes years for large-scale transportation projects to get federal approval under the National Environmental Policy Act, said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the University of Southern California's METRANS Transportation Center, which examines transportation-related issues in metropolitan areas.

"There will be some people who feel that it would have negative environmental impacts or that it would generate risks," Giuliano said. "On top of the usual stuff, there would be some of the issues of an unproven system."

A 2016 analysis prepared for NASA's Glenn Research Center points to more questions: How would the tubes be evacuated in the case of an emergency? Would passengers experience nausea traveling at super speeds? Would the carbon emissions saved by such a system be enough to offset the emissions added by the construction of such a large-scale system?

Despite a seemingly endless list of challenges, Hyperloop proponents say the company's goal of having systems up and running in four years is achievable.

"It's a stretch, but I think it's possible, if you've got all the right leadership behind it," said Chris Zahas, co-founder of the Hyperloop Advanced Research

Partnership. "It's refreshing to see that the state sees that potential."

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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