Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Columnist: Naperville, Illinois Needs a PRT Boondoggle

Last week, Bill Mego of the Naperville Sun wrote a column titled; "Public transportation is going away in U.S.".

It will have to be safe and private. Naperville people don't want to travel in groups or mingle with the lower classes or the homeless.

So, to be successful, public transportation will have to be less than a fifth as expensive as light rail, not need a right of way, and run on a very small amount of electricity. Its cars will have to be safe and private, have essentially no moving parts that require maintenance, and not need a driver. So is there such a system? Yes, fortunately there is, but the "experts" aren't considering it.

I'll explain next week what it is.

Right.. the old, you don't want to ride with scary (fill in the blank) people, anti-transit canard.

This week Bill Mego lets us know what the "system" that excludes lower classes and homeless people is... and you guessed it:

The real genius of this system, called Personal Rapid Transit, is the computer system that controls the space between cars, called headway, their speed, their route though branches in the guideway system, and the distribution of unoccupied cars throughout the system. There are no schedules. A car is usually waiting at a station whenever you wish to ride. You pay by the ride, or by the day, with a credit card, an RFID device like an I-Pass transponder, or some kind of ticket.

A main spine from far south to far north Naperville might cost less than a high school. Because the guideways are easily installed and moved, loops and branches can easily be added as the system develops.

Because of low labor, fuel, insurance and maintenance costs, PRT can be financially self-supporting through tickets and dynamic, location-related advertising telling, for example, what is available at the stores and restaurants you are approaching. The more it is used, the less each ride costs.

The first step for us might be to plan a PRT line from a remote parking lot to the downtown Metra station, perhaps powered by our Green Fuels Depot. Given the negative and contentious political climate today, I think it would be foolish to proceed further without a super-majority referendum. I believe PRT is, however, the only form of public transportation we could ever implement. Fortunately, it's also the best.

Just what Illinois needs, another PRT boondoggle like the Raytheon,/Rosemount PRT project:

Fast-forward to the middle to late 1990s. J. Edward Anderson, the USA's leading PRT guru, managed to convince Raytheon, a major military hardware contractor, to buy into his PRT technology (a scheme developed in 1981), which he licensed to Raytheon in 1993. Raytheon then poured R&D money into the concept, bringing forth PRT 2000, a proprietary Personal Rapid Transit product. One way or another, PRT promoters had managed to attract the interest of the Northeastern illinois Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) in the concept, and a study concluded in 1992 that a suburban PRT system appeared feasible.

Lured by Raytheon's promise of a 1.3% commission on any additional sales of the PRT 2000 technology, RTA bought heavily into the venture, investing tens of millions of dollars in a proposed PRT system in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, illinois, where a conference center and hotel complex near the Chicago O'Hare airport were planned. A 3.5-mile (5.6-km) triple-looping layout with about 8 stations and 40 cars, operating 20 hours a day, was intended to feed passengers to the RTA's Blue Line rail transit station (actually, not a bad test application for PRT). The system was projected to attract about 2 million rider-trips a year, at a cost of $1.00 a trip.


An article in Mechanical Engineering Design (2004) relates that "after eight years and $40 million, the system proved to be unworkable." (Actually, according to another report in the Advanced Transit Association Newsletter (Spring 2000), total public and private investment in the project came to $67 million, virtually all of it wasted.)

In any case, work on PRT 2000 was discontinued by Raytheon and the RTA in 1999 ("Raytheon's PRT 2000", innovative Transportation Technologies website, 18 August 2002). An interview with Raytheon's project manager (ITS international, November/December 1999) notes that the company gave up after realizing that they could not build the system for less than $50 million per mile – and that for single-direction guideway loops.

Some people never learn...


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