MORPC planning 'major announcement' after Midwest route makes top-10 list

Five months after winning an international challenge from Virgin Hyperloop One, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission is ready to announce "the first step" of the proposed project in a "major announcement."

In September 2017, MORPC's proposal to link Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago via high-speed transportation was chosen as one of 10 winners around the globe by Hyperloop One, a division of the Virgin Group. English business magnate and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is the Hyperloop One chairman.

In a release at the time, Hyperloop One said the 10 winners qualify for "meaningful business and engineering resources and work closely with each of the winning teams/routes to determine their commercial viability."

The other winning routes, which represent Canada, India, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States, are Toronto-Montreal in Canada, Bengaluru-Chennai and Mumbai-Chennai in India, Edinburgh-London and Glasgow-Liverpool in the United Kingdom, Mexico City-Guadalajara in Mexico and Cheyenne-Denver-Pueblo, Dallas-Laredo-Houston and Miami-Orlando in the U.S.

Now, according to Thea Walsh, MORPC's director of transportation systems and funding, the organization is ready for a "major announcement" that will involve "the first step we'll be taking with Hyperloop One" sometime during the week of Feb. 19.

Though Walsh and MORPC spokeswoman Bernice Cage said they could not provide any information on what that announcement would entail, Walsh said the concept is feeling more real than ever after MORPC officials took a trip last month to visit Hyperloop One's first working concept, called DevLoop, in Nevada.

"I used to say decades on something like this," Walsh said. "But transportation planning is moving so much faster than it used to. Things that are taking decades are now taking years."

'Midwest Megaregion'

The idea behind MORPC's proposal -- called Midwest Connect -- is to create a "Midwest Megaregion" out of the three cities they say would combine for a gross domestic product of $865 billion.

To accomplish that, a Hyperloop would run from Pittsburgh to Chicago, with "major stops" in Columbus and Fort Wayne, Indiana, on the way. Other stops, according to MORPC documents, would include Lima and Newark.

The Hyperloop design is based on the concept of using electric propulsion to power "pods" through a low-pressure tube, enabling those pods to reach speeds of hundreds of miles per hour.

The loop theoretically would allow passengers and freight to travel its full length in under an hour.

"The focus of the proposal ... is to kind of redefine local in some ways," Walsh said, "what it would it mean for our workforce and access to jobs ... or how food gets from farm to table quicker or how transportation could work off of clean energy compared to fossil fuels currently."

Jim Hassinger, Southwest Pennsylvania Commission executive director, has said Hyperloop could increase collaboration and the exchange of information with other cities on advanced research and development of advanced technology.

"This innovative transportation project would benefit the entire Midwest and provide new opportunities for the rapid spread of information and expansion of trade among industry leaders," he said in a press release last year.

Early challenges

Walsh and Cage tout MORPC's optimism about the project, but the concept still is in early phases. Information on budget, details of the loop's route or even how funding might be divided still are not being discussed.

MORPC is leading discussions with multiple public and private entities to secure funding for proposed studies, according to a January 2018 status report, which showed $1.25 million -- half of the total funding goal -- was committed or pending.

Another factor includes rights of way and right-of-way acquisition.

Terri Flora, MORPC's director of public and government affairs, told ThisWeek the hope is to use as many existing rights of way as possible and limit the need to acquire others.

The path forward

Although Walsh might be measuring the project's fruition in years rather than decades, that doesn't mean it's moving quickly by conventional standards.

"Typically, a large-scale project takes at least 20 years to lock down and make sure we have funding for it and planning and construction -- a project like (state Route) 315, for example, or (Interstate) 670," she said. "And what we're talking about here is much larger than that."

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Even after next week's announcement, which Walsh said would focus in part on "giving us the information we'll need in order to build," central Ohio residents shouldn't expect the project to spring up overnight.

"Just like so many of our transportation projects, it's not like we can just rush into this," she said. "We have to go through the whole process of doing environmental documentation and plans and phases. The other unique wrinkle through all of this is that the federal government has no standing regulations for this transportation mode."

For those involved in the project, however, that lack of government regulation is an exciting proposition.

Walsh said being involved in the framework of those kinds of regulations is a positive for both the people involved and the region.

"What's really cool about this is that I look back and I can't say I've ever been a part of something like this," she said. "I would (compare) it to when the interstate highway system was being built, actually sitting at the table and talking about how this was going to transverse our country.

"Because of our role in this, we've been invited to the table with a very select few and the federal government. I think that's pretty cool on its own for central Ohio."