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A hyperloop route between St. Louis and Kansas City is under serious consideration

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Meet me in St. Louis (in 31 minutes)

Missouri officials announced the formation of a public-private partnership today to study the feasibility of building a hyperloop route between St. Louis and Kansas City. The study is being supported by Hyperloop One, the Los Angeles-based startup that has been working to realize Elon Musk’s dream of nearly supersonic, tube-based transportation.

The study is being conducted by a consortium of groups, including the Missouri Department of Transportation, the St. Louis Regional Chamber, the KC Tech Council, the University of Missouri System, and the Missouri Innovation Center in Columbia. The news of the state’s interest comes on the heels of Hyperloop One’s announcement of the winners of a global challenge to find what it believes to be the best places in the world to build the first hyperloop tracks.

St. Louis to Kansas City is a 248-mile route that takes around three hours and 40 minutes by car, or about 55 minutes by plane (not including time spent traveling to the airport, security lines, etc.). Hyperloop One claims the trip would just take 31 minutes using its system of aerodynamic pods traveling through nearly airless tubes at speeds of up to 760 mph. Of course, that depends on building hundreds of miles of tubes, either above ground on pylons along a highway like I-70, or through underground tunnels. The Missouri study will explore all these options, as well the amount of state money that would be needed to build it.

The study will cost about $1.5 million, and will be paid for using private funds, Missouri officials said. “We are committed to bringing this innovative mode of transportation to Missouri,” said Patrick McKenna, commissioner of the state’s transportation department, in a statement.

Missouri was not a winner in Hyperloop One’s challenge, yet the company sees the state’s interest in a hyperloop route as further validation for its still-untested product. “Looking at the proposed routes in Missouri, it’s really one of the best we’ve ever seen,” said Dan Katz, Hyperloop One’s director of public policy and North American projects. It’s an “incredibly straight route,” Katz said, which is important for hyperloop pods to achieve their top speeds. It would also connect with the city of Columbia, the home of the University of Missouri, which is about halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City. “It’s about as attractive a route as we’ve seen,” Katz said.

In addition to Missouri, Colorado is also performing a feasibility study of a proposed route that would connect Denver, Colorado Springs, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Both states have gone the extra step of rallying support among both the public and private sectors, Katz said. That’s a crucial ingredient for any state that aspires to host the futuristic transportation system.

“Missouri stepped up in a big way,” he said. “We see it coming from the governor’s office and a number of private sector business groups, all across the board.”

And while Hyperloop One is participating in Missouri’s study, any proposed project would still need to go through an open bidding process to determine which company wins the contract. That said, Katz insisted that his company was best positioned to do just that. “We feel confident that we’re the only company in the world that has completed a working, full-system hyperloop,” he said.

But whether the hyperloop will be built first in the US or abroad (or at all) is still an open question. Finland and Dubai are both considering their own hyperloop routes. Meanwhile, Elon Musk is suddenly interested again in the idea he helped popularize back in 2013. Of course, building anything new in the US, experts will tell you, is incredibly difficult, if not close to impossible. It can take years, if not decades.

Still, the interest Hyperloop One has managed to generate so far among normally risk-averse stakeholders in government and business is certainly impressive. The company’s executives have always said their effort is a multi-decade one, and now we can see why. Routes need to be studied, technology needs to be validated, and money (lots of it) need to be locked down. To go very, very fast, you must first go very, very slow.