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Amid Hyperloop Hype, Transit Troubles Remain

Cleveland is studying the possibility of building a high-speed transportation link to Chicago. Supporters say the proposed Hyperloop would open up new jobs to Northeast Ohioans. But some local transit riders and advocates wonder if it’s the best way to spend limited transportation dollars.

Hyperloop and local transit

On a cold Friday afternoon, Cleveland resident Tom Horsman catches the bus home from work. For most of his adult life, Horsman has managed to get around without a car.

“It started as a financial decision," Horsman says. "I moved back to Cleveland after living in Washington, D.C., for about seven years and I didn't have [a car] there.”

It’s only about 10 blocks from Horsman’s day job to his apartment, so it’s a short bus ride. But a couple weeks ago, he needed a new battery for his iPhone. A trip to the Apple Store that would’ve taken 25 minutes by car took Horsman almost two hours on public transit. Luckily, he made all the trains and buses along the route.

Perplexing priorities

In February, regional transit officials announced they were planning to study the possibility of building a Hyperloop, a system of passenger capsules that speed through low-pressure tubes at near the speed of sound. When Horsman heard the announcement, he was "perplexed."

The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) approves transportation policy for the region. The publicly funded agency is partnering with a private company to see whether a Hyperloop between Cleveland and Chicago is possible.

"NOACA has always taken the position that transportation is by and large not just one single mode but many modes that build up a system," says NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci.

Gallucci says local transit would still play a key role if the Hyperloop gets thrown into the transit mix. After all, people traveling to and from Cleveland still need a way to get around once they’re in town.

But public transit in Cleveland is struggling. The RTA has a $20 million hole in its annual budget from money that used to come from a sales tax on Medicaid payments that the state eliminated. The agency has been cutting routes and staff. Ridership is at an all-time low and, at least for now, the agency has postponed a 25-cent fare hike.

Getting to work on public transit

According to a 2015 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, fewer than 1-in-3 jobs in Northeast Ohio are accessible by public transit. And Clevelanders earning the least amount of money typically have the hardest time using public transit to get to work.

Cleveland workers could use the Hyperloop to commute to jobs in Chicago. But some transit advocates claim that amounts to a loss for Northeast Ohio employers.

“Suburban employers can't fill jobs, so what is the greater source of need at this point?” says All Aboard Ohio's Executive Director Ken Prendergast.

Is the Hyperloop fact or fiction?

According to Prendergast, policymakers would do well to prioritize local transit before they chase a shiny — and as-yet hypothetical — mode of transportation like the Hyperloop.

“Some of the stuff that's being thrown around right now is borderline snake oil salesman stuff," Prendergast said.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is developing the Cleveland Hyperloop, says its concept is not as theoretical as critics claim.

According to HTT's feasibility expert Chuck Michael, the Hyperloop consists of “known parts and pieces.”

Michael says the components in his company’s Hyperloop – from linear induction motors to magnetic levitation – are all familiar and tested.

“And now we're in the process of putting together all these different parts," Michael says. "I think that's the secret, is how we put these together that simply hasn't been done before.”

The debate over Hyperloop's upside

But even if the technology isn’t fiction, the benefits it would bring to the region are debatable. Prendergast said the people who’d most need access to jobs probably couldn’t even afford to ride the Hyperloop.

“Having a tube between two metro areas that many of the low-income workers won't be able to afford to use anyway is going to be of limited value to them," Prendergast said.

In spite of RTA’s financial woes, Gallucci stands by the Hyperloop for now.

“Do I see the RTA as a weak link in that system because of their financial situation? I'm going to say no," Gallucci said.

According to Gallucci, the Hyperloop could help solve RTA’s budget problem through revenue streams like advertising, user fees, and right-of-way payments on land purchased by the Hyperloop. That money, she said, could help fund local transit.

Critics like Prendergast say it’s still premature to spend public money on an untested mode of transportation. NOACA is spending $400,000 to study the Hyperloop. The rest is being funded with a $200,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation and $600,000 from HTT for a total of $1.2 million.

“Why is it falling on taxpayers to do this?" Prendergast said. "Why isn't Hyperloop able to develop this through the capital markets?”

For those who depend on RTA to get around, like Tom Horsman, the Hyperloop hype is drawing skepticism about regional leaders' priorities.

“I know [the RTA] isn't as fun or as sexy as the Hyperloop may be," Horsman said. "But it's as much a critical component of people getting to their jobs every day.”

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