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Justice’s Rocket Ship Ride Comes in a Vacuum Tube

With the election looming, Governor Jim Justice has delivered his version of an October Surprise, and it came flying into the state in an oversized vacuum tube.

Virgin Hyperloop, Sir Richard Branson’s futuristic people and cargo mover, will build its Certification Center in West Virginia.

The Center, to be located on 800 acres of donated land in Tucker and Grant Counties, will serve as a research and testing facility to demonstrate to regulators that the technology works and is safe for passengers.

As our Brad McElhinny reported, “A hyperloop system could connect cities, allowing transportation in pods zipping through sealed tubes at speeds of 600 miles an hour or more.”

“The new development is anticipated to create thousands of jobs across construction, manufacturing, operations and high-tech sectors.” The investment totals one-half billion dollars with an estimated annual economic impact of over $40 million.

Hyperloop asked every state for proposals.  Company CEO Jay Walder said West Virginia won them over for a variety of reasons.  “The engineering and scientific talent, combined with the skilled workforce and collaborative spirit we know is critical to this project, is all right here,” Walder said.

Justice, who famously promised an economic “rocket ship ride” for the state, had good reason to crow.  “Today is a fantastic day for the state of West Virginia, and I’d like to be the first to officially welcome the folks from Virgin Hyperloop to their new home,” Justice said.

In West Virginia, we have grown cautious about such fanfare announcements. The state has seen and heard of too many big plans that never got off the drawing board.  Remember the proposed ethane cracker plant in Wood County and the $84 billion dollar deal with China Energy?

We heard “game-changer” so often for those and other announcements that the phrase has almost become the kiss of death.  However, at the risk of being swept up in the moment, this announcement feels different.

First, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is a well-established entrepreneur.  Yes, he has had a few flops, but he has had far more successes than failures.

Second, the basic concept of hyperloop is not new and upscaling for people and cargo continues to be tested. A number of companies are trying to advance the technology around the world.

Third, there is a growing interest in “the next thing” in transportation, something beyond airplanes or high speed trains.  Hyperloop may offer a faster and more environmentally friendly alternative.

The state has been working with Virgin Hyperloop for a year, and I’m told the announcement yesterday was not timed to coincide with the election to help Justice. Supposedly company officials dictated much of the rollout.

Additionally, Senator Joe Manchin participated in the announcement.  The Democrat is a critic of Justice and a strong supporter of Justice’s opponent, Democrat Ben Salango, in the Governor’s race. It is hard to imagine Manchin joining the announcement parade if he thought this was a pig in a poke.

This announcement has a huge “wow” factor.  Justice’s penchant for hyperbole caused him to promise an economic rocket ship ride. It will be up to West Virginia voters to decide whether he has fulfilled that promise, but he will be able to legitimately argue that the journey has at least begun—not in a rocket, but rather in a vacuum tube.

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