Imagine if you could travel from Boston to Providence in less than 20 minutes.
Considering a typical drive or train ride takes a little over an hour, the implications would be immense. It would change how people decide where to live and work. And if such transportation was affordable enough, it could have a large impact on the working class by opening up the geography of opportunities they have access to.
This is part of the grand vision of Hyperloop, the high-speed form of transportation conceived by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. But a proposal to connect Boston and Providence with Hyperloop's electric propulsion pod travel technology is surprisingly personal and has a lot less to do with Boston and Providence than it does a small town in southern Massachusetts.
That small town is Somerset, about a 20-mile drive east from Providence, and it's the cornerstone of the Hyperloop Boston-Providence proposal that is competing with 34 other projects across the world for a chance to get built. They were chosen out of a pool of 2,600 teams from across the world, and Hyperloop One, the company running the Global Challenge competition, is expected to announce three winning proposals by the end of the summer.
For Holly McNamara, who's leading the Hyperloop Massachusetts project, the 64-mile proposal is about putting Somerset on the map and giving her hometown — and the surrounding area, which includes Fall River — an economic boost that it's very much in need of. For decades, she said, Somerset hasn't had a direct transit line to Boston. And the closure of two local power plants over the past several years have created a massive drain on jobs and tax revenue for the town. Hyperloop Massachusetts could also boost an offshore wind farm development that has been proposed off the coast of Somerset.
"We figured it would be a perfect opportunity to put the South Coast back on the map," she said.
With the Commonwealth of Massachusetts currently working on a South Coast commuter rail plan, McNamara said the Hyperloop could serve as an important supplement. An estimated Hyperloop trip from Boston to Somerset would only take about five to 10 minutes, McNamara said, which could incentivize people to work longer distances from where they live.
"It will change our perception of time," she said. "It will change everyone’s lifestyle."
The Hyperloop would also be able to carry cargo, which could have major implications for logistics, as well.
After growing up in Somerset and getting a degree in civil engineering at Cornell University, McNamara moved to the West Coast and lived in California for 14 years working in various engineering jobs. Then, four years ago, she moved back to Somerset and was elected to become one of the town's three selectmen in 2016. When she learned about Hyperloop One's Global Challenge last year, she saw it as the perfect opportunity to improve her town and region's economy.
The Hyperloop Massachusetts proposal has since received endorsements from several politicians, including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, as well as state legislators and town officials from Fall River, New Bedford and Somerset.
Hyperloop One is expected to choose 12 finalists from the 35 competing proposals sometime this month. By the end of the summer, the company will choose three winners, which will receive assistance from Hyperloop One's engineering and business development teams to work on feasibility studies. The estimated completion date for the winning proposals is 2021.
McNamara said if Hyperloop Massachusetts was chosen as one of the winning proposals, it would eventually expand to cover other areas in Massachusetts and continue down the east coast.
"If we succeed at putting the Commonwealth on the map, we will be able to duplicate efforts in other areas of the state, the coast, and the country," she said.
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