Rishav Khemka is the business lead for the Carnegie Mellon University hyperloop team, which competed in the 2017 hyperloop competition. Even he knows that hyperloop technology isn’t anywhere near real-world implementation. “We are not that close yet, a couple of years at the minimum,” says Khemka. “But once it becomes more concrete, CMU will play a big role.”
Khemka understands the skepticism surrounding hyperloop. For example, hyperloop boosters have floated the idea that the tube could run underground, but Khemka says that seems unlikely in Pennsylvania and Ohio, with the states’ abundance of underground mines and fracking wells.
But Khemka is still confident hyperloop will become a reality. “With any new technology there is always criticism,” says Khemka. “People had some concerns with drones, but now they are the norm. The same with self-driving cars.”
Chris Sandvig, a transit expert with the nonprofit Pittsburgh Community Redevelopment Group, doesn’t fault people for getting excited about hyperloop since it’s such an innovative transit project. But he worries the hyperloop proposals could be offering some false promises.
Another tech company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has proposed a Great Lakes hyperloop line from Toronto to Chicago, with a connecting line from Pittsburgh. According to their proposal, the Great Lakes hyperloop system “would not require government subsidies” and “would have a low cost of implementation.”
Sandvig says, “No transportation system in the world is created without subsidies in some way by the public. I don’t know if putting something in a tube is going to change that.” He estimates a large-scale hyperloop project would cost billions of dollars.
Sandvig thinks the excitement for hyperloop is positive development, but wishes equal energy would be put to proposals that address more immediate transportation issues that focus on improving communities. He says Pittsburghers need more options to help improve their local commutes, not new infrastructure that allows them to live more than 100 miles away from their jobs in Downtown Pittsburgh. Sandvig says commuter rail to Pittsburgh suburbs and more daily Amtrak trains to Harrisburg are a more immediate need for Pittsburghers. Sandvig also sees the expansion of the East Busway to Monroeville and a possible Bus Rapid Transit system to the airport as more pressing transit projects for Pittsburgh.
“We need to take seriously, investing in mass transit,” says Sandvig. “I would rather [be] asking what sort of transit solutions we need now and what problems [do] we want to solve in the next 10 years. We really need to think multimodal to help our communities thrive.”
Transit architect Cole agrees. He wrote to CP that hyperloop proposes a technology solution to a political problem. “We already know how to quickly move large numbers of people between Point A and Point B: subways, light rail and high-speed rail,” wrote Cole.
He believes hyperloop is just another “convenient shiny object” that Rust Belt politicians can market as a sign of the region’s progress, without improving more immediate needs like public transit, housing and public schools. “Hyperloop … gives anti-transit politicians a convenient excuse to sabotage needed transit investments while painting skeptics as anti-progress,” wrote Cole.