MN: A 700-mph tunnel between Twin Cities and Rochester? Group wants $2M from Met Council for ‘hyperloop’ study.

Feb. 6, 2024
Global Wellness Connections, a nonprofit that counts the mayors of Edina and Plymouth and former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie as board members, is asking the Met Council for most of the $2.5 million needed for a feasibility study of a hyperloop.

A group of local civic leaders is seeking $2 million from the Metropolitan Council to study the possibility of a "hyperloop" vacuum tunnel that will whisk people between the Twin Cities and Rochester in just 15 minutes — a largely theoretical technology hyped a decade ago by entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Linking the Twin Cities and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester has long been a goal for public transit advocates, and some leaders in Minnesota think a hyperloop that travels faster than an airplane at 700 mph is worth exploring. Hyperloops are not in use as a mode of passenger transportation anywhere in the world, and naysayers contend the technology is unrealistic. A train between the two cities would make more sense, they say.

Global Wellness Connections, a nonprofit that counts the mayors of Edina and Plymouth and former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie as board members, is asking the Met Council for most of the $2.5 million needed for a feasibility study of a hyperloop between Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Rochester International Airport, largely along Hwy. 52.

Executives from California-based HyperloopTT, which is working with Global Wellness Connections on the Minnesota grant, said they have yet to transport people on their test track in France.

"I don't think that we should let things go unstudied just because nobody has done it," said Bloomington City Manager Jamie Verbrugge, who submitted a letter of support for the study.

Another proponent of the study is Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who chairs the Met Council committee that will vote on the grant application. He also serves on the Global Wellness Connections board as a volunteer member.

Hovland said he will recuse himself from the hyperloop discussion when it comes before the Met Council and notes that he does not have a financial interest in the effort.

"Let's try to get some money to see if it makes any sense," Hovland said. "If it were somehow to come to fruition, it'd be quite a pilot for the rest of the country."

But in places where hyperloops have been studied, the reaction is a bit more skeptical.

"No one has made this technology work. It's a fantasy," said Harvey Miller, a professor of geography at the Ohio State University, who has reviewed feasibility studies of hyperloops in Ohio.

Local leaders who support studying the project say they want to be forward-thinking.

"It does seem futuristic," said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton,who wrote a letter in favor of the grant application.

Norton and others are convinced that a high-speed connection could strengthen the medical, health care and bioscience corridor between the two urban areas and offer a convenient and climate-friendly way for employees to commute.

"When I travel around the world, people — whether they're outside the United States or on the coasts — think Rochester and the Twin Cities are just one dot on the map," said Patrick Seeb, executive director of Rochester's economic development initiative. "We need to improve the connection."

Trying to narrow the gap between Rochester and the Twin Cities was one of the byproducts of discussion on the 2027 Expo, the international trade show that Minnesota competed for, but failed to win, Verbrugge said.

"The letter of support I sent on behalf of the council and port authority is based on our long history of supporting these kinds of studies," Verbrugge said.

But is it responsible to commit public resources to study a technology that is not in use anywhere in the world?

"That's a decision for policymakers," Verbrugge said.

The hyperloop application will be vetted by the Met Council's Transportation Advisory Board (TAB), comprising 34 members who make recommendations about federal funding for projects that improve mobility and safety, manage congestion and improve air quality.

This year, the TAB received 127 applications requesting some $445 million in funding, but only $250 million is available for distribution. A final decision on the applications is expected this summer.

For HyperloopTT, a feasibility study in Minnesota is a chance to build relationships with local government agencies even though the technology is still experimental, said Chuck Michael, the company's regulatory advisor and U.S. feasibility studies lead.

"If it proves out, let's see what the next step is," Michael said.

HyperloopTT's chief operating officer, Andrea La Mendola, said the company is developing the technology first and will work on ensuring it is safe for transporting people later. The company is pursuing feasibility studies now so that by the time hyperloops are ready to use, they can be built sooner, he said.

The firm completed a $1.3 million study in 2019 assessing the feasibility of a hyperloop connection between Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in 27 minutes, a trip that would take more than seven hours to drive.

The study found there is a "strong case" for the region to pursue a Great Lakes Hyperloop project, which could be "transformative" for the northeast Ohio economy. And, it concluded, the line could be funded largely through private sources.

But since then, not much has happened. Danielle Willis-Render, a spokesperson for the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, the planning body that commissioned the study, said the region is waiting for the federal government to issue guidelines for hyperloop projects.

In 2022, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters he found the hyperloop idea "super interesting," but he doesn't believe government money should fund it. "Sure, try it," he said, "but we'll probably not try it on our dime."

Last week, HyperloopTT won another contract to provide technology for a short hyperloop near Venice, Italy — just in time for the 2026 Winter Olympics. If built, the Italian tube could be the first commercial hyperloop in the world.

After the Ohio study, some transit advocates and observers there still have questions about the technology.

A distance like the Twin Cities to Rochester could take less than half an hour on true high-speed rail at 200 mph, said Miller, the Ohio State professor, and even conventional rail could make the trip in under an hour.

"I would wonder what problem we're really trying to solve for," Miller said.

HyperloopTT's Michael said he thought a 15-minute commute between Rochester and the Twin Cities could help people move between the cities on a daily basis, living in one place and working in the other.

Stu Nicholson,the former director of transit advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, wondered what the passenger experience would be like in a hyperloop.

"Would I get into a capsule and ride through a pipe? No," Nicholson said.

But Tom Fisher, a University of Minnesota professor of architecture who wrote a letter supporting the study, says there's great promise in using a hyperloop connection to move not only people but freight between MSP and the Rochester airport.

Other companies' fates raise questions about the financial viability of hyperloop technology. Last year, Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One shut down and laid off 200 employees, according to Bloomberg News. The decade-old firm was formerly associated with Virgin Airlines entrepreneur Richard Branson.

There hasn't been a rail connection between the Twin Cities and Rochester since 1963. A study of high-speed passenger rail known as Zip Rail between the two was abandoned in 2016 by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Olmsted County due to lack of funding.

The notion of a quicker trip between the two cities by Zip Rail met with considerable pushback from landowners and some lawmakers along the Hwy. 52 corridor.

There are no plans to revive the discussion, according to MnDOT spokesperson Julie Bartkey,who added that the agency isn't currently studying hyperloop technology.

Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, said the passenger rail advocacy group is more interested in expanding rail service to Rochester by using existing freight rail infrastructure and operating trains at conventional speeds, which is about 79 mph. It takes about 90 minutes to drive to Rochester from the Twin Cities.

Whether it's a hyperloop or train, Hovland said he's in favor of making it easier to choose not to drive.

"None of us think twice about using public transportation in Europe," Hovland said. "That's what we could do here, and what we should do here."

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