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A Brief History of Personal Rapid Transit in Minnesota

October 06, 2008 By Ken Avidor, guest author
 
The Star Tribune recently published a commentary by Catherine G. Burke titled "Why Personal Rapid Transit Should be the Next Revolution..." sound familiar?

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) Personal Rapid Transit is a futuristic transportation concept with a controversial history stretching back over thirty years. PRT is loosely defined as a network of pod-like vehicles on an elevated monorail-like structure with many off-line stations. In theory, PRT is supposed to combine the advantages of the private automobile with the efficiency of fixed guideway transit. After thirty years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on PRT research, there are no true PRT systems in operation anywhere in the world, although there have been many failed attempts. In more recent years, PRT has served another purpose as a stalking horse to stop funding for conventional transit.

PRT had no support from traditional grassroots transit advocacy groups such as Transit for Livable Communities and the Sierra Club North Star, both of which have resolutions opposing the public funding of PRT on their web sites.

Personal Rapid Transit began as a concept in the 1950's and '60's and found favor among urban planners at the Federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) who believed that mass transit could only compete with the private automobile by becoming more car-like. Millions of dollars were poured into PRT research projects.

In 1971 Minnesota Legislature appropriated $50,000 for a PRT proposal. PRT promoters from the Citizens League testified against a Metropolitan Transit Commission proposal to build rail lines as the backbone of a comprehensive transit network. The PRT study, published in 1973 recommended public funding of a project that would demonstrate the feasibility of PRT. The legislature did not fund the PRT project, but the diversion created by the PRT promoters helped to block the MTC proposal and Minnesota had to wait nearly twenty years to get it's first light rail line.

PRT also played a role in delaying plans for rail transit in other cities. Denver citizens voted for a one-half cent sales tax in 1973. A Congressional report explains what happened next:

"UMTA began backing away from its early enthusiasm for the Denver PRT proposal in 1974. Embarrassing cost overruns in the demonstration project in Morgantown, W. Va. had cast doubt on the financial and technical feasibility of a PRT system similar to the one proposed in Denver. In addition, the Airtrans System at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport-like Morgantown's PRT, a technological predecessor of the proposed Denver system-was not performing up to specifications."

The so-called PRT project at West Virginia University in Morgantown was estimated to cost $14 million and ended up costing $126 million (1979 dollars). At it's debut, the Morgantown PRT malfunctioned with President Nixon's daughter Tricia on board. The Morgantown PRT has been plagued by glitches and breakdowns ever since.

Other PRT-style, automated transit experiments ran into the brick wall of reality; CVS (Japan), Cabinentaxi (Germany), Aramis (France), Cabtrack (England) Ford Motor Company's ACT (Dearborn) all failed to meet expectations and were abandoned after wasting considerable funding that could have been invested in reality-based, conventional transit modes.

In the 1990s, Professor J. Edward Anderson, convinced the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) of Illinois to fund a PRT project for an industrial park in Rosemount, Illinois.  Raytheon agreed to build it. The project was discontinued due to cost overruns and technical problems. Total losses in public and private investment in the Raytheon PRT project were estimated at $67 million.
Undeterred by this massive failure, J. Edward Anderson's PRT company Taxi 2000 tried to get city after city to fund a PRT testing facility. In Cincinnati, promoters of PRT managed to convince U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky to release $500,000 in federal money for a PRT project they called Skyloop. Skyloop was rejected by a regional planning committee after engineers found the PRT concept to be an unsafe, infeasible eyesore. Downtown Cincinnati business owners objected to the removal of potential customers from the street level.

In the 1980's, Minnesotans took another look at rail transit. PRT enthusiasts again opposed LRT, but this time with a more belligerent tone. A PRT enthusiast disrupted an art seminar my wife and I were conducting, yelling that public officials conspired to suppress PRT and threw Taxi 2000 brochures on the table. Another transit advocate told me of similar meetings disrupted by PRT enthusiasts.

In 2004, bills and amendments were introduced at the Minnesota Legislature that granted bonding, regulatory and tax advantages to develop a PRT industry in Minnesota. Not one of these bills survived the legislative process, but the PRT bills provided a platform for anti-transit legislators to denounce conventional transit as too expensive, inefficient or old-fashioned. Stooping to fear tactics, PRT promoters claimed LRT riders would be "forced to ride with strangers".  The $4 million PRT bonding bill was passed by the House only to be extinguished in the conference committee. Things went quickly downhill for PRT promoters after that.

Late in 2004, J. Edward Anderson was prevented from regaining control of the Taxi 2000 Corporation. One bitter shareholder wrote in a letter to the Pioneer Press:

"I was present at all of the relevant shareholder meetings and can affirm without reservation that this company was taken over by a gang of political opportunists led by one Morrie Anderson."

Professor Anderson started a new PRT company PRT International LLC and was subsequently sued in 2005 by Taxi 2000 for taking intellectual property with him. The lawsuit was settled when J. Edward Anderson revealed that he had not taken any patents because no relevant patents existed. Neither PRT International nor Taxi 2000 has shown few signs of life since.

Although the Taxi 2000 Corporation lawsuit and the embarrassing legal travails of its most prominent promoters likely sealed PRT's fate in Minnesota, a far more important factor in the demise of PRT in Minnesota was the phenomenal success of the Hiawatha Light Rail Line which has far exceeded ridership projections. The  
Hiawatha Line's success in attracting auto drivers has disproved the notion that transit must be car-like.

A group calling itself Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit (CPRT) keeps the PRT flame alive in Minnesota. The CPRT had a booth at the Living Green Expo at the State Fairgrounds this year. Their rhetoric is toned down, but they still maintain that rail transit is inferior to PRT. When asked for specifics, they mention experimental PRT facilities in other countries, projects that offer no real record of performance and are likely to join the long list of failed PRT projects. A list of these would-be PRT vendors on a Podcar Conference website held in Ithaca earlier this month did not include Taxi 2000, but did include a PRT system whose web site once claimed it was cheaper to build than LRT because they used a guideway-extruding robot.

If the past is any guide, the future of transportation in Minnesota is unlikely to resemble the futuristic, Jetsons-style fantasy. The very real challenge of providing transportation choices to Minnesotans requires that public officials and citizens make decisions that are based on reality, not science fiction.


Reference:

Assessment of Community Planning for Mass Transit: Volume 5-Denver Case Study, U.S. Congress 1976

Assessment of Community Planning for Mass Transit: Volume 7-Minneapolis-St. Paul Case Study, U.S. Congress 1976 http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/ota/1976ota.htm

Planning for Personal Rapid Transit - Minnesota Legislature, 1973

Transit for Livable Cities - Professor Vukan Vuchic, Rutgers 1999

The Transportation Rennaisance - Edmund Rydell, Xlibris 2000

Fundementals of Personal Rapid Trnasit - Jack Irving Lexington 1978

Light Rail Now article on PRT: http://www.lightrailnow.org/facts/fa_prt001.htm

Sierra Club North Star resolution against public funding of PRT: http://www.northstar.sierraclub.org/campaigns/transportation/position200404.html

Transit for Livable Communities resolution against public funding of  
PRT: http://www.tlcminnesota.org/Resources/Local_Issues/Local-Index.htm#NoStatePRT

Personal rapid transit, Big deal or boondoggle? - Conrad deFiebre, Star Tribune, April 23, 2004

Personal rapid transit spending draws fire at Capitol - Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio, April 23, 2004


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