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Is the Hyperloop Taking Cities for a Ride?

This image, from a Hyperloop promotional video, shows how the above-ground tube might look. Video still: Hyperloop TT

The Hyperloop and Silicon Valley are going to save the rust belt.

That's the message in a slick marketing video dropped by Hyperloop TT after a big announcement in Cleveland Monday. Civic leaders in Northeast Ohio, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Congressional reps Marcy Kaptur and Tim Ryan, were on hand for the signing of a $1.2 million grant, funded in part with $200,000 from the Cleveland Foundation, that kicks off a six-month study of Chicago to Cleveland Hyperloop service.

Grace Gallucci, director of NOACA, the local regional planning organization, told NPR that Clevelanders could look forward to an operational Hyperloop offering 30-minute trips to Chicago in three to five years. That's a wildly optimistic timeline for a 340-mile project of any type, much less one that hinges on unproven technology.

Right now, the Hyperloop consists of a short test track in the Nevada desert. It has never carried a human any distance. Would it be a comfortable way for people to travel? Would it carry enough passengers to be useful for the public? Could the infrastructure be constructed at a competitive cost? No one knows.

That hasn't stopped officials from going all-in. The grant led Hyperloop TT to promise that the Cleveland to Chicago route will be the system's first.

A promotional video is heavy on flattery and rust belt nostalgia. "Flying 700 miles an hour through a tube using magnets and sunlight isn't a dream," says a deep-voiced narrator. "It's a 'We're building this and coming to the Midwest to do it' thing."

Amid images of regular folk who are "unafraid of work," local "partners" recite their professional bona fides, though their exact relationship to the project isn't made clear.

Monday's event certainly earned Hyperloop TT a lot of local publicity. The Plain Dealer basically reran the company's press release without much in the way of critical analysis.

Hyperloop TT says its technology is for real and claims the system will be profitable. Yet it will rely on funding from one of the poorest big cities in the country.

As for why would a company that owns revolutionary transportation technology would select its first route on the basis of a relatively tiny $1.2 million grant, well, that's another question public officials and the press apparently aren't asking.

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