Local transportation officials are looking at ways to speed the Dallas-Fort Worth region into the future. And they're considering hyperloop, a high-tech system that would shuttle passengers through a low-pressure tube.
The Regional Transportation Council announced Wednesday that it will consider the feasibility of a hyperloop as a way to connect Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington. The group is made up of 44 elected and appointed officials that choose funding priorities. It has been in discussions with Virgin Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles-based company that has a test track in Nevada.
"Whatever we build will be around for 100 years, so we need to consider it (a hyperloop system) as we move forward and let the process decide if it's the best way to move or not," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
The regional group has been exploring solutions that would speed up trips between Dallas and Fort Worth and boost economic activity. It plans to hire consultants later this year to evaluate hyperloop and high-speed rail and compare them based on a variety of factors, such as noise, vibration and potential ridership. The study, called an environmental impact statement, will cost about $5 million and take two to three years to complete, Morris said.
A hyperloop system that carries passengers isn't a reality yet - but that hasn't kept companies and transportation officials from imagining a time when long commutes and trips to a sports arena or a restaurant in another city could take only a few minutes.
A computer model by Virgin Hyperloop One estimated that a trip between downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth would take about 6 minutes and 20 seconds by hyperloop with passengers cruising at about 360 miles per hour.
A hyperloop would be just the latest futuristic transportation experiment in the Dallas area. Uber chose Dallas as one of the first cities to test a new on-demand air taxi service with flight demonstrations expected in 2020. Arlington offers a free autonomous shuttle service for visitors to its entertainment district. Frisco teamed up with Silicon Valley-based Drive.ai to start a self-driving car service for office workers later this month. Another company, Texas Central Partners, is developing a bullet train from Dallas to Houston.
In addition to that, the city of Dallas has become a laboratory and battleground for numerous bike-share and electric scooter companies.
Hyperloop could make it possible to travel at the speed of an airplane, but in a tube that is underground or above ground like an elevated train. The low-pressure environment of the tube creates less drag, so pods can travel at higher speeds and use less energy. Passengers would travel in levitating pods with seating that is similar to a plane or train.
The concept of a hyperloop has been championed by tech billionaire Elon Musk, who wrote a white paper that galvanized engineers and transit innovators. It also inspired the start of Hyperloop One.
Hyperloop One got a new name and infusion of funding last year from the Virgin Group and its founder Richard Branson.
Texas was already on the company's radar. Last fall, it included a Texas route on its short list of potential hyperloop sites. The proposed route of approximately 640 miles, dubbed the Texas Triangle, would connect Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Laredo. The proposal was submitted by engineering firm AECOM.
Dan Katz, Virgin Hyperloop One's director of North American projects, said the company began talking to North Texas officials because of the proposal. He said the Dallas-Fort Worth hyperloop route could be the first phase of a larger, statewide project.
The company has a test track in a desert area of North Las Vegas that has reached speeds of nearly 240 miles per hour, Katz said. So far, it has been tested without passengers. The company's technology aims to reach about 600 miles per hour with a longer runway, he said.
Katz said Virgin Hyperloop One plans to build its first hyperloop system in the early 2020s and may start by moving cargo. He said it's discussing hyperloop projects in Colorado, Missouri and Ohio, along with North Texas.
Morris traveled to Nevada to see the test track and met with the company's engineers in Los Angeles. He said he and other regional officials want Dallas-Fort Worth to "have a reputation as a technology center and a region of choice." That means planning for a future with many modes of travel, from bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets to potentially, autonomous vehicles and the hyperloop, he said.
But first hyperloop technology must overcome its own hurdles. Companies must build a system that is safe, reliable and financially feasible, said Christian Claudel, an assistant professor of transportation and civil engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He advises a team of college students competing in a hyperloop contest that is sponsored by SpaceX.
"I'm really optimistic and excited by the technology, but frankly as a transportation professor I think there are a lot of things to work on before it becomes a transportation system," he said.
Among the hurdles, he said, hyperloop must be able to safely move people in such a low-pressure tube. If pressure drops in the cabin of an airplane, passengers can put on oxygen masks and the pilot can quickly guide the plane to a lower altitude. If it drops in the low-pressure tube, he said, an oxygen mask wouldn't provide enough air for passengers.
He said he anticipates that the hyperloop will develop incrementally and test its safety and reliability by testing freight.
"It will be a huge development with many, many steps before we reach a functional system," he said. "I don't think we'll wake up one day and miraculously have a functioning hyperloop."
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