CDOT crunches the numbers to bring Hyperloop to Colorado

State officials take first steps toward realizing the high-tech transportation system.

The reality is closer than you might think, and the Colorado Department of Transportation is taking the possibility of the Rocky Mountain Hyperloop seriously.

CDOT plans to spend the next nine months crunching the numbers to determine what it might take to bring the futuristic technology to Colorado after partnering with Hyperloop One — one of the companies racing to develop the super-speed technology.

The proposed Rocky Mountain Hyperloop — which would be centered at Denver International Airport and stretch to Fort Collins; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Pueblo; and Vail — carries a hefty $24 billion price tag. CDOT estimated it would need an initial investment of $3 billion just to get the first stretch from Greeley to DIA completed. 

This steep financial cost combined with lingering questions about how the technology would function in the real world have left CDOT, Hyperloop One and their partner infrastructure firm AECOM with a lot of homework before this futuristic fantasy could become a reality in Colorado.

Why Hyperloop?

The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates the state’s population will grow by nearly 50 percent in the next 20 years. 

That has left transportation experts scrambling for solutions to address the added pressure to interstates and highways already groaning under the state’s ballooning population.“Moving people rapidly from one place to the next has implications of radically changing how we think about land use, and where people live, and where they work, and how they get between that,” CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of working adults living in Fort Collins drove to jobs in other communities in 2014. That number was even higher in other cities, such as Loveland, where nearly two-thirds of employed residents had jobs outside of city limits.

“We cannot build our way out of congestion, and that’s why we’re looking so widely at technology,” Ford said.

In its proposal to Hyperloop One, CDOT argued that the technology could give a tremendous boost to Colorado’s economy by connecting its industry clusters and workforce. The proposal also estimated that Hyperloop’s operation in Colorado would augment the Front Range’s gross regional product — the market value for all of its goods and services — by 7 percent by 2040.

The Colorado Department of Transportation plans to expand Interstate 25 from Wellington to Denver, but that project is slated to be completed in increments, with full completion not in sight until 2075. 

The widening project received a boost earlier this month when the Colorado Transportation Commission approved $200 million in provisional funding to expand I-25 to three lanes in each direction between Colorado Highway 402 in Loveland and Colorado Highway 56 in Berthoud. CDOT is also scheduled to begin work on a more than $300 million expansion project between Colorado Highway 14 in Fort Collins and Colorado 402 in coming months.

David May, president of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce, emphasized the importance of continued work on I-25 as the Hyperloop proposal moves forward.

“We still need to work within the current transportation technology paradigm,” he wrote in an email. “That means putting money into widening I-25 and other state transportation projects. It’s OK to dream about El Dorado as long as you continue to invest in ‘Realville.’”

But with Hyperloop, CDOT sees a chance to ease congestion on busy roads and ease the burden of lengthy commutes.

“The traffic congestion, tolls, and transit options within the Denver metropolitan area would no longer be the constraining factor in people’s decisions about where to live and work,” CDOT argued in its Rocky Mountain Hyperloop proposal. “The Hyperloop option would make it faster to commute from Colorado Springs or Fort Collins to the DEN Aerotropolis than it would take 80 percent of the residents of the Denver metropolitan area to reach the airport using existing modes.”

Although Hyperloop One has outlined an aggressive timeline for construction — it says it wants to have three operating Hyperloop systems by 2021 — there are still possible roadblocks standing in front of a Colorado route.  To begin, no one seems quite sure who would foot the $24 billion price tag.

“We’ve long said we don’t intend to be the main pockets for this,” Ford said, referring to CDOT.

That funding piece could shift what a Colorado Hyperloop would look like, at least at first.  If a private investor funded the bulk of the project, that could create a bigger incentive to use the system to transport cargo, rather than people.

Ford said she hoped that eventually the system could be used to move both people and goods. The feasibility study CDOT is working on in partnership with AECOM and Hyperloop One will explore how that could happen. That study is set for completion next summer.

AECOM Vice President of Transportation Alan Eckman said the technology has potential to function in both capacities, though he thinks transporting cargo with Hyperloop would be a good start, especially in Hyperloop’s first iteration.

“Cargo certainly seems like a more simple way to look at how you could test it, but I think it would be a very fast transition,” he said. “I don’t think it has to be years of operation before you could transition it.”

The agencies looking at the feasibility of a Colorado Hyperloop are also studying what regulatory hurdles they’d need to clear before sending Hyperloop pods zooming across the state.

CDOT is focusing much of its efforts in the feasibility study on determining what would need to happen for the technology to gain approval from the federal government.

Eckman also said the study would need to look at how the different jurisdictions and states in a possible Hyperloop would interact with each other and establish consistent requirements for the route.

With technology this outside the norm, some of the most basic logistical questions still haven’t been answered. The experts still don’t know how often Hyperloop pods would need to stop at stations along the route, or whether passengers would need to go through a TSA-style security line before boarding. 

“Those basic operational questions would need to be at least addressed in the first feasibility study,” Eckman said.

In its proposal to Hyperloop One, CDOT acknowledged that it would make sense to build a Hyperloop route in phases, starting with stops that would benefit from the high-speed travel and present fewer logistical barriers to construction.

The proposed first leg would run 40 miles from Greeley to the Denver International Airport, linking the home of the University of Northern Colorado, a renewable energy cluster and one of the nation’s largest beef exporters to other Colorado transportation hubs.

Greeley Mayor Tom Norton said he’s interested in the prospect of a Hyperloop in his city, but said he’s waiting for more information about how funding for the project would work. He said Greeley alone isn’t enough of a population center to carry the technology forward. Instead, it would need to be accessible to the entire Northern Colorado region.

“Let’s find out what the reality of this is,” he said. “You never know what technology will do. … It could change your world, so being involved with it is important.”

The Greeley route could be built faster than other Hyperloop options because it runs along more undeveloped plots of land, meaning there would be fewer right-of-way issues, Ford said.

The route would also include a stop on Interstate 76, the home of a rail station that connects Colorado to Nebraska, which could prove valuable if Hyperloop is used for cargo.

Ford said CDOT’s feasibility study will look closely at the Greeley route but is more broadly focused on the Front Range and what might make sense for that part of the state.

She also emphasized that even though the announcement of the feasibility study marked a significant move forward, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before Hyperloop could become a reality in Colorado.

“If this is a 100-step process, we’re probably on step 5,” she said. “We’re defining it, creating parameters under which this could move. … That’s the important piece.”

How does it work?

Hyperloop pods are powered by electric propulsion and gradually accelerate through a low-pressure tube. Magnetic forces lift the pods above the track, where they glide at speeds similar to passenger planes due to low aerodynamic drag. 

Estimated Hyperloop travel times

  • Denver to Fort Collins: 9 minutes (1 hour, 20 minutes by car)
  • Cheyenne to Greeley: 7 minutes (1 hour, 11 minutes by car)
  • Denver to Greeley: 6 minutes (1 hour, 10 minutes by car)
  • Denver to Vail: 9 minutes (1 hour, 43 minutes by car)
  • Denver to Colorado Springs: 9 minutes (1 hour, 20 minutes by car)
  • Colorado Springs to Pueblo: 6 minutes (45 minutes by car)