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Magnetic levitation technology known as hyperloop is still in the distant future for Colorado, which was named a finalist by Virgin Hyperloop One in 2017 in a global competition. Pictured is the Las Vegas test track of Virgin Hyperloop. (Provided by Virgin Hyperloop One)

So Colorado isn’t getting a hyperloop.

At least not the one promised a few years ago, when the state won the transportation jackpot of futuristic travel. 

The state’s new transportation boss said this week that efforts to pursue pods that speed along custom tunnels at more than 600 mph isn’t being pursued by the Colorado Department of Transportation. But that’s not stopping hyperloop enthusiasts from taking the smaller steps necessary to build something resembling the shiny metal pods and track. 

“It’s been quieter,” said Steve Cohn, a retired scientist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research who now is on the board of Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership, or HARP. “That might be a naturally good thing because it takes time for things to develop properly.”  

HARP, which organized the Global Hyperloop Conference this week at the Colorado School of Mines, started up after a group unsuccessfully pitched a hyperloop plan for Colorado. The gathering of academics, analysts, engineers and transportation enthusiasts focused on the minutiae of building a hyperloop: securing the rights of way, tunneling costs, safety standards and the carbon footprint.

Hyperloop is still a thing, there’s just a plethora of details to tackle first.

“Wouldn’t it be great for hyperloop if the tubes (from different companies) match and you have a common standard of propulsion,” HARP president Dave Clute said during his opening remarks at the conference. “All this has to work seamlessly. We sure hope it doesn’t take us as long as the railroads, 100 years (later) to get to where they are now.”

Colorado’s reputation as an edgy transportation state started a few years ago under director Shailen Bhatt. He pushed for Colorado to consider technology and promote it as one of the solutions to the Front Range’s growing population and congestion. 

Bhatt launched RoadX in 2015 to explore technology to make transportation safer and more efficient, instead of focusing on building more roads and highways. RoadX projects included smart streets with sensors to track vehicle speeds or when a car careens off the road; an “internet of roads” on Interstate 70 by adding internet to signs and lights to warn approaching cars of slow downs and crashes; and the effort to bring Hyperloop to Colorado. 

We won that one. Sort of. Colorado was named one of 10 finalists worldwide — and one of three in the U.S. — in the 2017 Hyperloop One competition for its 360-mile route connecting Pueblo to Cheyenne and west to Vail. The prize wasn’t that we got the swift travel system, but rather that Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One would work with each team on the proposals, figure out the business case and do some technical analysis. 

The main result so far has been a feasibility study by engineering firm AECOM and CDOT that put the cost for Colorado at $24 billion. But while Bhatt promoted futuristic travel, he always pointed out that the state wouldn’t fund it. After Colorado was named a Hyperloop finalist, he told the Denver Post “now that we’ve been named a winner — and I’ll put air quotes around that — we’re setting up the model for a public-private partnership. There’s a chance that this doesn’t come to fruition.” 

Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. She was a panelist at the Global Hyperloop Conference in Golden on July 8, 2019. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Shoshana Lew, who was appointed CDOT’s executive director in December, said she’s already focusing elsewhere. During a panel at the Global Hyperloop conference, she talked about buses, primarily the state-owned Bustang service offering an air-conditioned ride between Denver and Fort Collins or Colorado or Glenwood Springs. She said CDOT invested $5 million in the service and is getting a high return, which tells her that people are willing to change their commuting patterns. 

“That 60% farebox return tells you something about whether it’s working or not. That is not a margin you usually see in a transit system,” Lew said in an interview with The Sun. “We’re trying to balance the practical with the innovative and the best technology in the world. If you can’t actually implement it, either because of the (lack of) feasibility or money, then it doesn’t work.”

More: I-25 traffic jams are shifting northern Colorado transit plans into high gear. But are commuters ready to ditch their cars?

Her team is also looking at a different sort of high-speed rail. In May, CDOT asked for proposals to build a new rail line connecting Fort Collins to Trinidad, with stops along the way. The goal is to put a project together next year and have it approved by the legislature, and then let citizens vote on it.

“We’re looking at where it would go and how it would integrate with the highway expansion we’re doing up and down I-25,” said Lew, who had worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “It’s so we can give people more options along the system in places where they’ll use them.”

But pursuing Hyperloop?

“A feasibility study was done and it showed, as you would expect, that the cost of deploying something that hasn’t been done anywhere else is pretty high. We have to plan a system that’s based on reality,” she said. “We’re not doing a lot of further work on that study right now.”

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Happening now

While the public side of hyperloop support has stepped back, private interests continue and projects worldwide are still being announced. 

Spain and Virgin Hyperloop committed to building a development facility for hyperloop testing in August. Another company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies in Los Angeles, won a contract last July to build China’s first hyperloop between the city of Tongren and its airport. Both companies are also proposing routes in India and other countries. Both also have test tracks, with Hyperloop TT’s in France and Virgin Hyperloop’s in Las Vegas.

In the U.S., Virgin Hyperloop announced the completion of a feasibility study in October for Interstate 70 running through Missouri (Initial costs for the 250-mile route would be $7 billion to $10 billion, according to CNBC).

Last month, a route connecting Cleveland and Chicago edged closer to $5 million in initial funding after an appropriations bill was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives as part of a transportation bill to fund hyperloop projects.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies in Los Angeles unveiled its full-size transport pod, or capsule, in October 2018. The company has proposed hyperloop routes in India, Indonesia, Republic of Korea and other countries. (Provided by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

And students at the Colorado School of Mines — the only school in North America offering a degree in tunnel engineering — built their own pods and were chosen to compete in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition two years in a row.

In March, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao created non-traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology, or NETT, a new department to support projects like hyperloop and self-driving cars. It’s still a far-out idea for many, but public and private groups are taking the small steps to see what’s possible.

Ariel Wolf — who under Chao helped create NETT — told conference attendees that it’s taken the federal agency a long time to get to this point. He remembers mentioning hyperloop to colleagues a few years ago and likened the response to “going into the supermarket and asking the store clerk which aisle has the Lamborghinis. In both cases, you’re not gonna be taken seriously and you’re probably going to be asked to leave.”

But now that NETT is here, he said it exists to help the hyperloop industry navigate through the various regulations, permits and department approvals needed. Previously, the different DOT agencies focused on their core transportation mode, such as automobiles or trains. Hyperloop fell in the gaps since it’s considered a multi-modal transportation system. NETT is supposed to take the expertise across the agency to avoid reinventing the wheel for each new hyperloop project. 

“There’s a real chance of deployment of technology on the horizon for companies and industries coming to the department and saying, ‘We want to get this technology permitted. We want to open a route from here to here, how are we going to do that?’” said Wolf, who has since left the DOT to join D.C.-based Venable law firm. “And that is what (NETT) is designed to focus on. 

John Whitcomb, who co founded the Rocky Mountain Hyperloop Consortium, said he realizes a hyperloop isn’t coming to Colorado any time soon, though he feels we can latch on to the Interstate 70 hyperloop project Missouri is working on. Other pressures besides population growth and traffic congestion could move hyperloop forward, he said. 

Read more transportation stories from The Colorado Sun.

“We have real problems with 28 trains a day moving north-south from Cheyenne down to Walsenberg because there’s an environment limit on what we can take,” Whitcomb said. “There’s a problem to solve and it’s all about freight. That’s how this is going to get adopted. Because the port of Houston can beat the port of Long Beach if they can get cargo containers unloaded off ships faster and delivered to where they need to go.”

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...