The Midwest is serious about innovation. Columbus recently put together a strong proposal with local businesses and foundations to win the federal Department of Transportation’s $40 million Smart Cities Challenge in September to help improve the movement of traffic in Central Ohio.
The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, based in Columbus, is now looking to take transport innovation and regional cooperation to the next level. MORPC put together a consortium and a proposal for a Midwest Hyperloop connecting Pittsburgh to Chicago via Columbus. Commuters could live in Columbus and work in Chicago, or vice versa, as the two cities would be less than 30 minutes apart by Hyperloop. Pittsburgh and Columbus would get a direct passenger and freight connection for the first time.
The proposal has come through as one of the top contenders in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, which cast the widest net possible to find the world’s best Hyperloop routes. The “Midwest Connect” project won support from Ohio Governor John R. Kasich, the Indiana Department of Transportation, the Ohio Department of Transportation, and the cities of Columbus, Lima, and Fort Wayne.
“We are determined not to be left behind,” says Alex Fischer, President and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a civic organization of Columbus, Ohio’s top business leaders. “In 1905 Columbus was the buggy manufacturing capital of the world…by 1925, the model T and the combustion engine had put that operation out of business. Today that operation is some great urban lofts in downtown Columbus…We know today an equal transformation is occurring....we want to lead and partner in that transformation. It’s both an economic necessity. If we don’t, we’ll be left behind. But more importantly, it’s a great economic opportunity.”
We sat down to discuss this opportunity and more with representatives from Midwest Connect at our Vision for America event earlier this month.
A Great Lakes Megaregion
The Great Lakes region has several thriving technology and manufacturing clusters, with particular strengths in energy, transportation, and software. It’s home to some of the top ranked hospitals in the nation, its manufacturing base accounts for almost 20% of national GDP, and the route itself passes through the headquarters for more than 40 Fortune 500 firms.
“Connecting the Chicago, Columbus, and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas would improve connectivity for the emerging Great Lakes megaregion, home to some 20 percent of the nation’s population and economic activity,” writes Joseph Szabo, Executive Director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning in support of the Midwest Connect route.
Regional planners forecast an additional 1.8 million jobs in the region by 2040, with the bulk happening in the Chicago area. A fast and direct connection between Chicago and rising secondary cities such as Columbus and Pittsburgh could unlock a more mobile and productive labor force across the region. The project backers see an opportunity to flip typical commuting patterns around: A Hyperloop system would allow skilled talent that wants to live in cities to commute to manufacturing sites in outlying areas that need plant operations managers.
The region has a wealth of construction expertise to tap for the build-out of the route. Illinois and Pennsylvania rank fifth and sixth nationally when it comes to the number of construction companies, with Illinois having more than 30,200 and Pennsylvania having 28,500 companies.
The freight capabilities of a Midwest Hyperloop would solve some of the region’s capacity and access challenges. Currently there is no direct highway route between Chicago and Columbus or Pittsburgh. In 2015, there were 5.9 million tons of freight worth $16.7 billion moved between Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. This tonnage is expected to increase to 9 million by 2040 at nearly double the value, according to the federal Department of Transportation.
A Hyperloop system could transform the movement of freight and the flow of goods across the region — especially in transporting sensitive medical equipment and orthopedics as well as connecting perishable goods across the region. William Murdock, Executive Director of MORPC, highlights this potential for the region, “In Columbus we have an international airport that exports food products directly. If you can get perishables to Columbus in 20 minutes, you’re exporting next day from the fields of Indiana to the Middle East or Japan.”
As the Midwest Connect proposal demonstrates, the region is well positioned to lead as a global player and key economic megaregion.