What if it took less time to get to Columbus than to ride home during rush hour on 376? What if you could run to Chicago for a lunch meeting and easily be back before dinner?

It could happen, backers of hyperloop technology have been telling us. Incremental steps are continuing toward that goal.

With the technology still in its infancy, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) is looking at a 30-year time frame for their Midwest Connect plan linking Pittsburgh to Chicago through Columbus. The proposal is one of 10 international winners of the Virgin Hyperloop One Global Challenge.

The thinking goes like this: Hyperloop shuttles are whisked through low-pressure tubes at up to 670 miles per hour by electromagnetic propulsion and next-generation magnetic levitation, yielding super short transit times. But building out the actual infrastructure is challenging and expensive.

“We have been doing research on connecting Columbus to other regions since the 2010s,” says Thea Walsh, director of transportation and infrastructure development at MORPC. “We had been advancing a Chicago corridor in 2013, and kind of hit a bump in the road as far as seeking funding for the environmental assessment for that.”

That’s when Virgin Hyperloop One came out with a competition seeking corridors for their technology.

MORPC made sure this Chicago corridor included Pittsburgh, Walsh explains, “because we knew there was a state partially-owned rail line to Pittsburgh.”

Virgin Hyperloop One. Photo courtesy of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

If Pittsburgh and Chicago become just a 41-minute shuttle ride apart, MORPC estimates approximately $300 billion in economic benefits for communities along the line. Shuttles could carry passengers and freight, bringing convenience and the massive environmental benefit of taking many cars and trucks off the road.

“It’s a level of service that people want today,” Walsh says. “People want stuff now, and this is a service that will provide that.”

Walsh and her team recently presented the results of their latest feasibility study to the Dublin City Council in Ohio, and more public meetings are expected to be held in 2020. MORPC is also studying traditional passenger rail, should the hyperloop ultimately prove unfeasible.

Meanwhile, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) is advancing a project called the Great Lakes Hyperloop System.

NOACA signed an agreement in 2018 with the Illinois Department of Transportation supporting a hyperloop route from Cleveland to Chicago. That planned corridor would include stops in Cleveland, Erie, Youngstown, Toledo, South Bend, Chicago and Pittsburgh, with an estimated travel time of 48 minutes between Pittsburgh and Chicago.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a member of the Great Lakes Hyperloop Consortium, is holding an informational meeting with NOACA in Pittsburgh on Nov. 13 at Two Chatham Center to discuss their feasibility study and the potential local impact of the Greal Lakes Hyperloop plan.

Graphic courtesy of NOACA.

Will this super fast travel actually come to fruition in our region?

“The hyperloop technology is proven, but not certified in the U.S.,” Walsh says. “In order for us to act on a corridor of this length, the company would have to do more due diligence around certification. They’ve issued a Request For Proposal for a certification site for testing, and they want to do that in the U.S.. We’re looking to seek out that opportunity, to be a place where they do that testing, and be a first leg on the line.”

Cost projections remain in the works for these projects. Virgin Hyperloop One is a private company, but public-private partnerships would almost certainly be involved, with significant buy-in from the communities it connects. Once funding is in place, the plan is to start building a certification test track in 2023-2024.

“Should that get off the ground, by 2030 you could see certification happen, and you could see a regional build-out in the Columbus or Pittsburgh area,” says Walsh. “From there, you’d begin to sort of connect regions — not all the way to Pittsburgh by that time, but built out to notable places along the way. By the 2050s, we could realize that entire corridor.”

Whether it’s ultimately Hyperloop or traditional high-speed rail that gets the nod, Walsh says, “we’re going to keep pushing ’til we have an answer as to what’s the best technology to use here, and I think that’s coming rather soon.”