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Colorado Springs must show support to get hyperloop transit system, company says

May 22, 2018 Updated: May 23, 2018 at 10:20 am
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Virgin Hyperloop One has released the design concept for its first hyperloop "portal," or station, proposed for 72nd Avenue and Himalaya Road near Denver International Airport. (Image courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One.)

A company trying to build a high-speed tube transit system that could whisk passengers across the state in minutes has a message for Colorado Springs-area governments and residents.

Those who want Colorado Springs to be part of a Virgin Hyperloop One system need to show their support for the emerging tube transit technology, which some say could bring unprecedented mobility to communities up and down the Front Range.

But first, officials must overcome many regulatory, logistical and financial obstacles.

The Colorado Department of Transportation joined with the Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One last September to examine the feasibility of building such a system after the company announced that Colorado was one of 10 locations worldwide it would consider.

Hyperloop transit uses bus-sized pods loaded with passengers or cargo, lifted via magnetic levitation and electrically propelled through a low-pressure tube at speeds topping 700 mph.

Since Tesla co-founder Elon Musk coined the concept in a 2013 paper, an entire industry has emerged, with companies offering various versions to test and commercialize the unproven technology.

A proposal, commissioned by CDOT and prepared by AECOM engineering, details a 360-mile network stretching from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Pueblo, with a westward excursion to Vail.

The feasibility study for Colorado is now halfway done, and the company has released the initial design concept for its first hyperloop portal station, proposed for 72nd Avenue and Himalaya Road near Denver International Airport.

"I think within a year we should have a much better sense of whether Colorado is going to be one of the first places where we'll be building a hyperloop," Dan Katz, a Hyperloop One director, said in a Tuesday interview.

During the second half of the analysis, the company will work with CDOT and AECOM to explore whether the system's first leg should stretch from DIA south to Colorado Springs or north to Fort Collins and Greeley, he said.

Governments in northern Colorado, including the city of Greeley, have expressed strong interest in the project, said Katz, the company's director of global public policy and North American projects.

The original proposal for the "Rocky Mountain Hyperloop," submitted to the company by a team including DIA and Greeley, proposes that the first leg be a 40-mile route connecting DIA and the northern Colorado community.

But Colorado Springs' aerospace industry also offers a unique appeal, Katz said.

"Colorado Springs, for us, is intriguing because we have a lot of technology needs that align well with the aerospace industry, and we think there's a lot of good synergy there," he said.

The company is exploring possible alignments for the proposed legs. A northbound route could pass through Greeley and then Fort Collins, or be between the two cities. A southbound route could reach Colorado Springs downtown or end at the outskirts of the city.

The more populated and developed an area is, the more complicated it becomes to build there, Katz said, so the company hopes to take advantage of eastern Colorado's vast open lands.

Whether Hyperloop will choose Colorado for its first system - and which direction the first phase would run - will depend on the enthusiasm of local communities, how topography affects construction plans, and the level of demand.

Beyond the first phase, another route could be built from DIA west to the Denver metro area and along the Interstate 70 corridor, Katz said.

Other communities with proposals in the company's top 10 also have stepped up with funding for further study since Colorado introduced its partnership with Hyperloop One last fall.

A regional planning commission in Ohio announced in February that it would spend about $2.5 million to study a rapid-transit route to connect Pittsburgh with Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago. A Missouri-based coalition also plans a feasibility study for a route linking Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis.

When Hyperloop One first announced the Rocky Mountain Hyperloop as a finalist, it said it hoped to have three operational systems by 2021.

But if the company picks Colorado, Katz said Tuesday, it would aim to start construction in the early 2020s and have something running by the mid-2020s.

The cost is still in question. The CDOT-commissioned proposal pegs its first phase at $3 billion and the entire network at about $24 billion.

But Katz said those estimates are based on magnetic levitation systems developed in Japan in the 1970s, so they might not be accurate. Still, he said, the project is expected to costs billions.

If the company opts for Colorado, that cost could be shared by public-private partnerships, he said. That typically means the private sector invests money and takes on much of the financial risk so a public agency can avoid large upfront costs. Such partnerships have generated money for other Colorado transit projects, including the widening of U.S. 36 from Denver to Boulder.

CDOT has spent $250,000 to analyze strategies to pay for Hyperloop systems or related technologies, said CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford. The study also will take into account what environmental and safety clearances would be needed, she said.

The agency is sharing information from its analysis with Hyperloop One and another L.A.-based transportation innovator, Arrivo, which announced last fall that it plans to invest $10 million to $15 million in a test track that would run adjacent to the E-470 tollway and be operational by the end of this year.

Arrivo, which envisions another tube transit system to one day connect hubs within the Denver area, is finalizing its construction and funding plan for the test site, Ford said.

Separately, a Fort Collins-based company is considering Colorado Springs for a 3-mile demonstration track for another brand of high-speed tube transit known as Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies, or ET3.

Loop Global Inc. is eying four other sites for the track and will announce a location by the end of this year, said CEO D Worthington. People could pay about $100 to take a ride at speeds up to 400 mph on the track, which would be built using about $25 million in private funds, Worthington said. The company "is still working with Colorado Springs on a potential route," he said in an email Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn and Mayor John Suthers, both Colorado Springs Republicans, backed the idea of a local test track in a July letter to the Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership, a coalition of businesses and professionals exploring the technology's potential.

The second half of Hyperloop One's feasibility study, to be completed by early fall, is expected to shed light on the environmental permitting process, what regulatory agencies might be involved and what issues might arise in trying to obtain land rights, he said.

The company still is perfecting the technology. In a test run last July, it sent a pod rushing through a tube a distance of 437 meters - about 1,400 feet - with maximum speeds of about 190 mph. With a longer track and more devices to propel the capsule, it could have reached the speed of sound, according to a post on the company website.

Katz said the company aims to engineer its systems so what passengers feel during their ride is smoother than an airplane take-off.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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