In August 2013, Elon Musk published the Hyperloop Alpha white paper; an outline of a new method of transportation. The concept is that of a low pressure tube with a capsule and riders zipping through it at high subsonic speeds. The routes would focus on connecting major metropolitan areas that otherwise have heavy traffic congestion; with the idea being to lift current time and distance restrictions that hinder movement between these areas.
Based on this proposal, in 2014 a startup called Hyperloop One (at the time Hyperloop Technologies, Inc.) was established with a goal of creating this technology and implementing it around the world. At this point in testing, the speed reached by the capsule has been near 200 miles per hour, with an eventual goal of 700 miles per hour.
On September 14th, 2017, Hyperloop One announced the ten winners of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge; a call for proposals aimed at connecting cities and regions with more than 2,600 teams registering. At the time of this announcement, the company also announced their first state partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation — with a route in Colorado also being one of the final ten — to look at the logistics and feasibility of such a project. Hyperloop One would like to have three full-scale systems operating by 2021. The New York Times reports that “Colorado officials said they were eager to explore the potential of the system to reduce pollution, road congestion and traffic accidents.”
The entire idea of the hyperloop seems like it could have amazing benefits, and the technology seems to be quickly on its way towards becoming a reality.
However, beyond the initial technological hurdles, what will happen once the very real regulatory issues begin to come into play?
At the base, there is a question of what kind of transportation the Hyperloop will fall under. It is unclear whether it would fall under road, rail, or air regulations, so at some point there will likely be a need for Hyperloop specific considerations, and a need for legislature to recognize this mode of transportation as its own.
Another huge consideration for the project is the ability to acquire right of ways or the land needed to build a hyperloop that stretches from one metropolitan area to another. There are plenty of examples where the ability to get a project approved has taken years longer than expected due to land issues. In 2008, California voters approved funding for a bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it has yet to be built due to lawsuits from communities and “cumbersome land acquisition deals.” New York and New Jersey have been trying for years to reach an agreement for a tunnel under the Hudson River. “For some urban context: a recently opened stretch of subway in New York cost $4.5 billion for less than 2 miles of rails. It was first proposed in 1919 and opened to the public in January 2017.” The project would need approval from a myriad of landowners, cities, municipalities, and states. This alone could add a significant amount of time to the development.
The environmental impacts would also need to be examined. According to a study, the average time for a federal agency to complete an environmental impact statement is 3.4 years. “’It took two years just to complete the geotechnical and environmental studies for the Chesapeake Bay tunnel project that’s about to begin’ in Virginia.” Another example is an extension of Washington, DC’s metro. The project has been proposed since 1994, but environmental impact lawsuits have slowed development claiming it would destroy wetlands and other wildlife habitats.
It is clear that there are many considerations beyond the technology that will need to be measured before Hyperloop One will begin to break ground. In relation to his own hyperloop company, even Elon Musk tweeted that “[p]ermits [are] harder than technology.” It will be interesting to see how the new partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation will play out, and if the relationship can be a guide for new partnerships moving forward.