Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Virgin Hyperloop project stalls out

Two-and-a-half years ago, Gov. Jim Justice announced with much fanfare that a futuristic company was making an enormous investment here. Virgin Hyperloop would locate a testing and certification facility on nearly 800 acres in Tucker and Grant counties. 

It was an inspiring moment. West Virginia had beaten out every other state for hyperloop, a transportation technology that would move people in sealed vacuum tubes at speeds up to 600 miles an hour or more. 

But it is not going to happen, at least not anytime soon. 

Sarah Biller, executive director of Vantage Ventures at WVU and point person on the hyperloop project, confirmed that to me last week. She explained Virgin Hyperloop/Hyperloop One went through a significant restructuring. 

“The company shifted its strategy to using its technology for logistics and cargo movement, as opposed to developing a global mass transportation system,” Biller said. “The movement of goods and packages is a first priority at this point,” she said. 

So, there is no need for the $500 million, people-moving hyperloop testing facility planned for here. Understandably, Biller is disappointed. “You want to see it with every ounce of your being,” she said. 

However, Biller sees a silver lining since West Virginia beat out every other state. “We were seen as the best place in the country,” Biller said. “It proved that we can compete.”  

That is a fair point. Jay Walder, who at the time of the announcement was the CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, said, “The engineering and scientific talent, combined with the skilled workforce and collaborative spirit we know is critical to this project, is all right here.”  

Well, those qualities are still here. Hyperloop’s decision to change direction is not a reflection on West Virginia’s ability to meet the demands of new technology innovators. “West Virginia is the right place for these technologies to find a home,” Biller said. “That’s the story of West Virginia’s future.”  

Fortunately, West Virginia did not invest beyond the work Biller and others put into trying to secure the project, but even that has value. “We learned about competing with the best states in the country,” she said. 

“Not everything is going to be a success, but that doesn’t mean that you give up,” she said. “You figure out a new pathway, and that is what innovation is all about.”  

Yes, Hyperloop was over hyped. We are not going to be zipping around in vacuum tubes anytime soon, or maybe ever. The collapse of the project is disappointing, but the experience alone contributes to the growth of West Virginia’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.