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Officials talk West Virginia’s selection for Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center

A section of the tube used for testing at the Virgin Hyperloop testing site in North Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop)

CHARLESTON — State officials praised company executives with Virgin Hyperloop for selecting West Virginia out of 17 other states for their certification center to develop standards and regulations for the next generation of high-speed transportation.

Gov. Jim Justice and state congressional representatives, economic development leaders, and higher education officials rolled out the red carpet Thursday morning for executives of Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop during a virtual announcement.

Virgin Hyperloop, founded in 2014, will construct the Hyperloop Certification Center on 800 acres of land between Tucker and Grant counties. Western Pocahontas Properties, is donating the land to the West Virginia University Foundation in partnership with Virgin.

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group, joined John Chambers, executive chairman of Cisco Systems and namesake of the John Chambers College of Business and Economics at WVU, on Thursday’s virtual announcement. The two billionaires have known each other for 20 years.

“The Hyperloop Certification Center will be located in the State of West Virginia,” Branson said. “You put more than your best foot forward to try to build a fantastic innovation center in your state. It can make a big difference for the future… It’s a very exciting day. Congratulations to everybody in West Virginia and the United States.”

Virgin Hyperloop CEO Jay Walder joined Gov. Jim Justice in announcing that the Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center was coming to West Virginia. (Photo courtesy of the WV Governor’s Office)

“I’m a believer in tech for good, but this is also very humbling for me because you took a risk on our state, my home state,” Chambers said. “It’s something that I think can result increasing jobs and really gives the state momentum as a start-up state in so many ways.”

The Virgin Hyperloop project proposes a high-speed passenger and cargo transportation system using pods that travel through vacuum tubes using a proprietary magnetic levitation system. Pods would move up to 28 people at a time and bring down the cost of transporting goods, while having a lower environmental impact.

The goal is to reach speeds up to 1,000 kilometers per hour, or 621 miles per hour, sending people and products three times faster than high-speed rail and 10 times faster than the traditional rails that crisscross the state. So far, the project has reached speeds of up to 387 mile per hour. Virgin hopes to receive a safety certification for Hyperloop by 2025 and start commercial operations by 2030.

“We did it,” Justice exclaimed on the virtual announcement. “We’re honored beyond belief. We’re proud beyond belief. Today, from the standpoint of a one year’s journey, we welcome Hyperloop to West Virginia and Grant and Tucker counties. We welcome them with the most open arms.”

According to Virgin, the Hyperloop Certification Center will see the construction of a 6-mile testing system to reach benchmarks for speed and turning, as well as set the certifications and specifications for hyperloop systems across the U.S. and worldwide. Virgin Hyperloop CEO Jay Walder joined Justice in person for Thursday’s announcement, thanking Justice for the partnership.

The location of the Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center will straddle Tucker and Grant counties. (Photo courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop)

“I am absolutely thrilled that we are here,” Walder said. “Today we lay the foundation for commercial deployment of operations across the United States of America and beyond. I am particularly in partnership with the people of West Virginia.”

The project recently received a regulatory framework from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which opens the doors for federal grants and possible deployment of hyperloop systems. The project has oversight from the Federal Railroad Administration. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao called the project a testament to the partnership between government and the private sector.

“Hyperloop technology is one of the many new developments during this historic period of transportation innovation,” Chao said. “Congratulations to Tucker County for having achieved this amazing and historic milestone.”

Virgin plans to start construction in 2021. The facility will include a welcome center; a certification track and operations center; a pod final assembly facility; a production development test center; and an operations, maintenance and safety training center. The project is expected to create thousands of jobs in its construction and an annual economic impact to the state of $48 million.

Kristen Hammer, business development manager for Virgin Hyperloop, said when the project is complete, the facility will employ between 150 and 200 full-time workers. Focus will be on hiring West Virginians, but the facility could also bring new residents to the state to work at the center.

“Those are people that we are aiming to hire from within the state as much as possible,” Hammer said. Those who we’re not hiring within the state, we’ll be working with universities … to build up that talent as much as we can within the state.”

The project will also bring together WVU and Marshall University, giving students at the state’s two higher education institutions an opportunity to help develop the new state-of-the-art transportation system. Virgin is also working with the Higher Education Policy Commission on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities for students in West Virginia four-year and two-year colleges and universities.

“We’re going to be focused on aligning workforce training efforts with their specific needs, including manufacturing, cybersecurity, and safety,” said HEPC Chancellor Sarah Tucker. “The work that they’re looking to achieve in testing their technology will require an all-hands-on-deck approach from all of post-secondary education, and West Virginia offers the partnerships, the workforce training, and the academic research that will be required.”

West Virginia was one of 17 states that submitted proposals for the Hyperloop Certification Center. In a media roundtable Thursday afternoon, Mike Schneider, vice president of project development for Virgin Hyperloop, said the search committee looked at several criteria for site selection.

The criteria included the available locations and topography, distance to major population centers for employment, the involvement of the higher education community, financing proposals, and support for the project from state and local government. Schneider said West Virginia met all the criteria.

“The process of selecting West Virginia came down to the fact that the state actually scored highly in all four of those categories and in particular, the commitment and support of the elected officials,” Schneider said. “It was actually overwhelming to us to see the level of interest, the level of commitment, that was being represented and not surprisingly, because the state is in the process of advancing its economy.”

Virgin Hyperloop officials joined Justice and officials with the Department of Commerce, Department of Revenue, Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Protection, and the West Virginia National Guard at West Virginia University last November to discuss West Virginia as an ideal location for the certification center.

Justice also praised the Virgin Hyperloop project during his 2020 State of the State address to open up the annual legislative session.

“In your State of the State address, you said you would do everything in your power to bring us here to West Virginia,” Walder said. “You’re a man of your word. It worked.”

As for what the state offered Virgin Hyperloop to choose West Virginia, specifics were not available. Ed Gaunch, secretary of the state Department of Commerce, said everything was offered that could be offered as far as tax breaks and economic incentives. A final agreement between the state and Virgin Hyperloop will not be completed until November due to the involvement of the state, federal government, and other entities.

“It’s still kind of a moving target and we have basically made available every incentive that the Legislature allows us to make to this project,” Gaunch said.

Both U.S. senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., were also involved with pitching West Virginia to Virgin, as was 1st District Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va., 2nd District Congressman Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., and 3rd District Congresswoman Carol Miller, R-W.Va.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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