A Q&A with some of our partners from the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition.
Missouri has always been a leader in transportation – from establishing the first leg of the U.S. interstate system to the historic flight of the “Spirit of St. Louis.” Today, the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition announced an agreement between Virgin Hyperloop One, the University of Missouri System, and the global engineering firm Black & Veatch to move forward with an in-depth feasibility study for an ultra high-speed hyperloop route along the I-70 corridor between St. Louis and Kansas City. The route would turn the economic power of the state’s two largest metro areas and the University of Missouri System into an interlinked economic powerhouse in the Heartland of the U.S.
We spoke with Ryan Weber, President of the KC Tech Council, and Andrew Smith, Vice President of Entrepreneurship and Innovation for the St. Louis Regional Chamber, who are both members of the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition. We discussed how hyperloop could fuel their local economies as well as build a collaborative, economic ecosystem for businesses across the state, and make Missouri a worldwide leader in transportation technology.
VH1: What’s the current the relationship between Kansas City and St. Louis and how might hyperloop affect this dynamic?
Ryan: One of the dynamics in the state of Missouri is that Kansas City and St. Louis have always been very competitive with each other. Now that we're going to be able to be in St. Louis in under an hour, I think rather than competing, we're going to start cooperating more so than ever. I was just joking with my peers in St. Louis about this project specifically and how nice it is actually working together on something because we're always competing against each other.
Andrew: You know, it's been really fun working with Ryan. When I met Ryan in Kansas City for the Governor's Innovation Task Force, we both ended up talking a lot about hyperloop and so we continued to push it through the process and then when it finally made it into the report, he was the first person I reached out to and said "If we're going to do this, we've got to do this at the state level. We’ve got to show people what can happen when Kansas City and St. Louis work together.”
VH1: From the “Road to Tomorrow” initiative to the Governor’s Innovation Task Force, Missouri is one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to seeking innovative new approaches to fund infrastructure needs. How does hyperloop in particular fit into the state’s broader vision?
Ryan: Hyperloop fits perfectly, because in each one of the initiatives you just mentioned is something bold. I think every state's got some plan or some campaign to become the most innovative. But there's not a lot of action in that. That’s what is so exciting about this hyperloop project for us. We've got all the same buzzwords, but we are taking concrete steps forward with the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition, a collaboration between public and private partners. It’s all happening very quickly – and that's a differentiator between us and a lot of our competitive states.
Andrew: Hyperloop is a really important part of the broader vision. Missouri is the birthplace of the U.S. interstate system. And it also is the place that launched transatlantic flight with Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic about 100 years ago. We have a history here of transportation innovation – it's part of our DNA. When we're looking at the future of transportation, we have to be talking about systems like hyperloop. If we don't, we risk falling behind and losing one of our key strategic assets.
VH1: Infrastructure projects in general don't have a great rep for speedy timelines, especially when it comes to regulation. What are some of the ways that we're planning to speed this process along?
Ryan: One of the things that I'm most excited about is the project’s ability to leverage the extreme amount of engineering and construction talent that is in Kansas City. We're such a hotbed for large engineering and construction firms, but they don't often get the chance to flex their muscles in our own backyard. For it to be a local company leading the feasibility study, I hope that most people in the state of Missouri feel just a bit more confident that this is going to happen.
Andrew: The Missouri Hyperloop Coalition has been very proactive in reaching out to neighboring states like Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio to try to bring as many partners to the table as we can to begin having a conversation about what sort of regulatory frameworks we would need to get this built. And we're not the only one doing this; Colorado for example has been very involved in this. But we've done a lot of recruitment work with other DOTs. And the idea here is that we want to begin with the end in mind. The end being we want a hyperloop system that ultimately connects from Denver across Kansas to Kansas City, St. Louis on to Chicago, and points east. And if that's the case, we need to have our ducks in a row. We need to be able to go to the federal government and say this is the work that we're doing. This is the direction we're going in and this is, frankly, the support on the regulatory side that we're going to need.
VH1: How do you see hyperloop affecting the business climate in the state?
Ryan: In the past, business leaders made key decisions on where they place their business and where they do business based on cost and things like tax incentives. Today, it’s all driven by workforce. Especially for a younger audience, hyperloop will make us even more competitive.
Andrew: We talk a lot about competitiveness and what Missouri needs to do to be in a better position to attract large companies. Well, one of the best things we can do is create a unified economic development mega-region consisting of Kansas City, Columbia, and St. Louis. If we did that we'd get a population of five million instead of 2.8 or 2.2 and that's bigger than San Francisco, that's bigger than Boston. If you have the ability to travel from Kansas City to St. Louis in under 25 minutes that potentially affects almost every company in our state in terms of recruitment and workforce development and talent attraction. I can't imagine anything that would have a bigger impact.
VH1: This hyperloop route will connect Missouri's two thriving cities. How might this project impact the entire state of Missouri -- especially its more rural areas?
Ryan: I know the folks living in specifically some of the rural areas are very curious as to how is this going to help them. I view it kind of like the highway system: there will be on-ramps and there will be off-ramps and you know I hope that someday this is not just only available in big cities but that it's available for everybody. And I think for the stop in between, there's speculation of stopping in Columbia or Jefferson City. And that being the capital, I hope that makes it more accessible to become an elected official.
Andrew: One of the things that we really spent a lot of time on over the summer and on the Governor's Innovation Taskforce was how do we bridge that urban-suburban-rural divide because we really need each other- we're all part of this together. Kansas City and St. Louis have an incredible impact on the economy as a whole. In Missouri, when you look at something like hyperloop that links the two largest cities, along with a university town, this is something that's going to benefit every single person in this state. Not to mention, hyperloop could enable freight distribution centers to be placed in rural areas. In Missouri, given our central location and our our status as a logistics hub, this could potentially have huge dividends for us. The Missouri I-70 corridor carries almost $60 billion of goods annually. Having another mode of transportation in our state that offers significant cost savings on certain types of goods could be a big strategic advantage for us.
VH1: In your conversations with residents, what are some of the things you hear about hyperloop?
Andrew: My favorite story about that was one Sunday afternoon maybe three weeks ago and my phone was buzzing and it was a message from Joe Reagan who's the CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and he said: Got to be quick don't want to get in trouble sitting in church and the priest just opened the homily with hyperloop. The whole sermon was apparently kind of a meditation on hyperloop and the verse from Isaiah "Make straight the way for the Lord." And so I thought well you know if a priest in St. Louis, Missouri is talking about hyperloop in a homily that's a really good sign.
VH1: Today, the Kansas City to St Louis hyperloop project officially kicked off... What’s next?
Andrew: Missourians tend to be naturally skeptical; “show me.” Missourians have a tendency to look at something like hyperloop and say 'really?! 650 miles an hour in a vacuum tube between Kansas City and St Louis?!' One of my favorite things is to show them the data, facts, the accomplishments that you all at Virgin Hyperloop One have made over the last couple of years, and, at the end of the conversation they always say 'I can't believe how real this.’ It happens to me every day.
What this tells me is that this is a technology that's not going to be driven by technocrats and bureaucrats. It's going to be driven by public demand. The public wants this and they want it as quickly as they can possibly get it. Now our job is to answer the hard questions about what is it going to take to get this built? What's the right-of-way situation, land-use situation, along the I-70 corridor? What kind of regulatory framework do we need? What's the economic and social impact? At the end of the feasibility study, armed with facts and data, we'll have answers to these questions and more.
Ryan: Considering how quickly this has come about already, I think it's okay to be bold and say that maybe we're going to be riding on something like this in the next five years. I mean the construction phase is going to take some time – testing and all that – but it's going so quickly. Think years, not decades.