Minnesota’s phantom pod-cars


Winona, a southeastern Minnesota city of 30,000, boasts a municipal bus system that carries nearly a quarter-million riders each year. Now city officials — backed by local business and higher-education leaders and with a boost from the governor and state transportation commissioner — want to add a futuristic, multimillion-dollar overlay of elevated monorails carrying small automated passenger vehicles guided by computers and propelled by electricity.

It’s called Personal Rapid Transit, an elusive dream of far-outside-the-box transportation thinkers for the past half-century. In that time it has posted a virtually unbroken record of cost overruns, technical failures and abandoned projects on three continents. Despite periodic bursts of promotion from the public-policy fringes, PRT hasn’t penetrated municipal transit anywhere in the world.

So why is Winona seeking a public-private partnership to bring PRT podcars to town? Not to enhance mobility for the locals particularly, but as a longshot stab at economic development.

“It’s not for Winona,” said Mayor Jerry Miller. “There’s no place in Winona you can’t get to in 15 minutes.”

But, he added, Winona could profit from the oft-promised flourishing of a worldwide PRT industry. Winona has climate, research and manufacturing resources that could support a demonstration project and make the city a global center for PRT development, he said.

“We would look to the state for some money,” Miller said. “PRT needs a pilot project so people can see how it works. It looks good on paper, but people want to know if the cars stay on the track. We could set up a manufacturing plant, too. We’ve got all the parts here to make it happen.”

What’ll it cost? According to the promoters, $25 million would pay for a mile-long guideway and 20 cars, enough to conduct a baseline study. Then it’s estimated that another four miles connecting downtown and the Amtrak railroad station with college campuses or other destinations would run $100 million to $125 million. Final build-out with more cars and guideways would cost another $50 million

This is Minnesota’s latest installment of podcar fascination, a history that dates back nearly 40 years. Nothing ever came of the previous initiatives, at least one of which wasted a $50,000 public investment. In 2004, the Minnesota House voted for $4 million in borrowing for a PRT demonstration project in Duluth, but the proposal went no further.

Two years later, Rep. Mark Olson, the sponsor of the 2004 initiative, sought House approval for a “serious, unbiased and objective” cost-efficiency study of PRT as an alternative to light rail for the Central Corridor transit project. His amendment failed on a bipartisan vote of 107 to 26. That was the last time PRT was considered in the Legislature, said Rep. Frank Hornstein.

Both Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, who head the transit subcommittees in each chamber, said the Winona proposal has no chance of state funding. “They’re not going to get nickel one of public money while I’m around,” Dibble said.

Said Hornstein: “If people in the private sector want to pursue it, fine. But even a penny spent on it in these tough budget times is problematic.”

At the urging of Minnesota-based PRT firm Taxi 2000, Winona quietly rolled out its podcar aspirations last month at a PRT symposium in Rochester organized by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Commissioner Tom Sorel, with the approval of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, spearheaded the event because of his interest in innovation and a multimodal approach to transportation, said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.

Hornstein and Dibble plan to ask Sorel if taxpayer money supported the conference and challenge his dalliance with what Dibble called a “completely and totally unproven technology.” Hornstein called it a diversion from effective transportation solutions and “a distraction from real issues” that is “always promoted by the antitransit right wing.”

Despite all the negatives, it’s possible, although not very likely, that PRT could find a significant niche market as a people mover in places such as airports, shopping malls, tourist attractions and compact mixed-use urban developments. In fact, a PRT system connecting a distant parking lot to the London Heathrow Airport terminal is in final safety testing and projected to begin service next year.

What’s practically inconceivable, however, is that PRT would ever substitute for the proven technology of major city rail and bus transit systems. 

Even further down the scale of probability are Winona’s chances of hosting yet another PRT pilot project. But you’ve got to give the little city on the Mississippi River some high marks for effort.

A colorful brochure [PDF] issued by the city at the Rochester conference – at private expense, Mayor Miller said — makes some amazing, if mathematically impossible, claims. For example, the brochure says, PRT systems could consume “over 300 percent less energy than conventional public transit systems” and produce “125 percent faster overall trip times.”

In the reality-based world, of course, you can’t reduce anything, including energy usage or travel time, by more than 100 percent.

That Winona State University, St. Mary’s University, Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, Winona thermoplastics firm RTP Company and government leaders from City Hall to the State Capitol would sign onto this nonsense strains credulity just as much.