Thursday, October 15, 2009

WVU Students Lampoon Morgantown PRT

There's been a lot of hype about the Morgantown PRT, like this segment from the bizarre Discovery Channel show (see yesterday's post):

A relic of misguided 1960's futuristic thinking, the so-called Personal Rapid Tranist (PRT) at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia now is in bad need of an overhaul and taxpayers may be asked to spend upwards of $90 million to fix it.

Here are two videos that lampoon the over-hyped people mover:

The futuristic Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) in Morgantown, West Virginia was designed to be an innovative "personal" mode of transportation... but it was jinxed from the start:

The Nixon administration rushed to have this trophy running before the '72 election, even as it was still being designed, driving up a budget that had (in the way of first efforts) been ludicrously underestimated. It was a great scare, and maybe karma, when at the launch a car took off prematurely with Tricia Nixon aboard. Congressmen and Reader's Digest railed against this "boondoggle," and the stigma has taken decades to shake.

The WVU PRT was supposed to prove the feasibility of the PRT concept, but that's not how it turned out:

... the PRT demonstration at West Virginia University at Morgantown, viewed at the time (mid to late 1970s) as the "proof of the pudding" of Personal Rapid Transit, in the words of the Metropolitan magazine article already cited. Originally estimated at $14 million by Prof. Samy E. G. Elias, an engineering professor at WVU and a major advocate of PRT technology, in the end the WVU system, 3.6 miles end-to-end with 8.7 total miles of guideway and 5 stations, cost over $126 million (as of 1979) – about $319 million in 2004 dollars.

While that amounts to only about $89 million per route-mile in 2004 dollars (not too bad for a mostly elevated transit system), it is far more than the bargain-basement prices typically promised by PRT promoters – and it does not include costs (such as real estate acquisition, public environmental mitigation, traffic control, etc.) which would be encountered by rapid transit planners trying to install a system in an urban area rather than a university campus. Moreover, the WVU experience engendered skepticism that such a PRT system with small van-like vehicles and small stations would really provide any sizable capacity in a more demanding environment to justify the relatively heavy investment that seemed to be indicated by the demonstration project. in effect, Morgantown was an ice-water bath for federal enthusiasm for PRT.

The Morgantown PRT would be more accurately described as a Group Rapid Transit (GRT) system similar to the people-movers in airports.

The Morgantown PRT is hardly "green" The concrete guideways have to heated with embedded pipes filled with anti-freeze to melt snow and ice. And the WVU PRT fries squirrels... lots of them:

It runs on electric rails above ground so when it rains or if a squirrel is unlucky enough to touch the rails then it breaks down. Nothing better than to look out the PRT window and see dozens of fried squirrels.

.. and according to WVU student blogs like this one, the PRT is extremely unreliable:

At least 15,000 students rely on the PRT's little yellow cars to get them where they need to go every day. To class, to the Rec Center, to the store. It will take you just about anywhere, when its working. First of all, it closes at 5 on Saturdays and isn't open at all on Sundays. Yeah, if you live downtown and want to work out during one of the few times you don't have class, too bad. Live up on Evansdale and want to do anything but work out? Oh well. Wanna go to church on Sunday? I hope your Methodist, or like hiking, cause those are really your only options.

A recent opinion piece in the The Daily Athenaeum gives more details about the WVU PRT's decrepitude and unreliability:

Part of the problem with the image of the PRT is that it breaks down without warning and without reason.

Students bemoan the fact that they are often late for classes or miss them altogether because of it.

It’s not a rare occurrence; it seems like there are always cars stuck on the rails above Beechurst Avenue.

In 2006, the PRT was down a total of 259 times for a total down time of 65 hours and 42 minutes, according to a 2007 Daily Athenaeum story.

According to a 2007 series of stories on the PRT, Bob Hendershot, assistant director of public safety and transportation for West Virginia University, said that one of the reasons for the recurring breakdowns stems the outdated power-collector arm – the sharp prong-like object on the individual cars.

Another issue is that the on-board computer system is severely outdated, according to one article.

... the vehicles are poorly designed and badly maintained:

The windows leak, the cars bump and jolt all across the tracks and half the time the heating is still on.

It’s not that I am expecting a first-class experience of some cross-national train journey, but the PRT ride, though brief, shouldn’t be completely miserable.

One of the biggest complaints of being stuck on a PRT is the experience inside the car.

When it rains, most cars lose two seats at the front and sometimes, if it’s a really bad storm, lose all four seats due to broken window seals that fail to keep the water out.

Another big issue is the heating and cooling system on board. It’s nice that the system even has those climate control devices, but when it’s the beginning of summer and the PRT is blowing out heat, it’s not a good combination.

Nor is it when the car breaks down and you’re trapped with a huddled mass of sweaty, angry people.

An article in The Dominion Post says officials at WVU are seeking to "modernize" the "antique" system and it will cost upwards of $90 Million. The university has hired a team of consultants to come up with a an exact figure. The cost of the consulting work is $565,183 for a ten-month study.

Time to pull the plug on the WVU PRT boondoggle.

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