More than 18 months after a Los Angeles-based company announced it was eyeing Colorado for its first Hyperloop system, there’s been few signs that the proposal has progressed beyond a cutting-edge concept.
Virgin Hyperloop One is among a handful of companies that have made pitches for transit networks that would send passenger-loaded pods zipping through low-pressure tubes at hundreds of miles per hour. Two other companies that sought support in the state for similar ventures, Loop Global and Arrivo, have folded.
State transportation officials, who once lauded Hyperloop’s potential, now say there are no concrete plans to build such a system in Colorado.
Under Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Transportation is embarking on a series of meetings to reassess transportation priorities across the state, with a focus on transit projects that can sustain growth better than widening highways. But it’s unclear if the emerging technology, which harnesses magnetic levitation and electric propulsion, will be a part of the state’s future transportation blueprints.
“There’s a lot of technology feasibility questions that haven’t been answered yet with Hyperloop,” said Shoshana Lew, CDOT’s executive director. “It’s an interesting technology that will continue to be explored in places across the country, but in no place is it up and running right now.”
On Monday and Tuesday, Hyperloop experts and advocates from across the country will gather at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden to discuss the technology and the logistical obstacles it faces.
Since Tesla co-founder Elon Musk coined the Hyperloop concept in a 2013 paper, an entire industry has emerged, with companies that offer various versions aiming to test and commercialize the technology.
Virgin Hyperloop One and CDOT announced a partnership in September 2017 to study what it would take to build a 360-mile network in Colorado. The early cost estimate was $24 billion to connect Cheyenne, Wyo., to Pueblo, with a westward excursion to Vail.
The company initially said it hoped to have three operational systems by 2021, despite the countless regulatory and financial barriers standing in its way.
The feasibility study has yet to be completed, Ryan Kelly, Virgin Hyperloop One’s head of Marketing and Communications, said in an email.
The company is also “actively working” on other projects in Ohio, Missouri and Texas, as well as India and Europe, Kelly stated in another email.
“Right now we are focused on certification and regulation of the technology and are making great progress at the federal level,” he said.
A bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last month would provide $5 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a regulatory framework for Hyperloop systems, according to media reports.
Two years ago, a proposal for a 3-mile demonstration track for another brand of high-speed tube transit, known as Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies, drew the attention of Colorado Springs area government and business leaders.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, Mayor John Suthers and others expressed support for the project, which was to be built on public right of way using private funds.
But the company behind the effort, Fort Collins-based Loop Global, shut down last summer, said Steve Moraco, a local high-speed tube transit advocate who was involved in fundraising efforts.
Loop Global “went under” due to problems related to technology licensing and “personality issues” that arose, Moraco said. Its CEO, D Worthington, also suffered a traumatic brain injury, Moraco said.
Worthington, who has reportedly moved out of state, could not be reached for comment.
Plans are in the works to establish a fund that would help investors finance efforts to test and develop Hyperloop and other related technologies, Moraco said.
“I’m still really interested in making sure that when companies like Loop (Global) show up, that we in Colorado have a way to support them and help them grow,” said the Colorado Springs resident, who runs a media company.
More bad news for Hyperloop enthusiasts came in December, when Los Angeles-based Arrivo shut down, abandoning plans to invest up to $15 million in a test track near the E-470 tollway, the Associated Press reported.
Still, state transportation officials say they’re open to innovative solutions that can help people get around as the Front Range continues to experience explosive population growth.
“I’d say there isn’t anything that’s off the table right now,” said state Transportation Commissioner Rocky Scott, whose district includes El Paso County. “It’s feasibility, cost — all those things are important questions.”
CDOT has spent more than $250,000 assessing the viability of Hyperloop systems and other rapid-speed technologies, a past spokeswoman for the agency told The Gazette last year.
Now, some say CDOT is pivoting its focus to more practical, conventional alternatives. The agency is working with a state commission to determine what it would take to build a passenger rail system from Pueblo to Fort Collins.
Lew, the agency’s executive director, is trying to “balance innovation and practicality,” said Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Jill Gaebler, who serves on the commission.
This summer, CDOT and the commission will choose a contractor to study potential railway routes, provide cost estimates and identify options for who would run the system and how it would be financed.
“It’s premature to answer on which technology we would go to, specifically,” Lew said. “The guiding question has to be about where you’re trying to move people to and from and what’s the sweet spot between what’s cost effective, what’s safe, what’s tested and what gets people where they need to go in a reliable manner that they’ll use.”