Firm pledges millions to Winona pod car test lab (01/24/2010)
By Sarah Elmquist
A private company that has developed a futuristic pod car transit system has pledged millions to Winona’s bid for a test lab to be the first to prove such a transportation system works.
Taxi 2000, based in Fridley, Minn., has offered to cover the required 20 percent match to a $24.9 million federal grant Winona will apply for. City leaders are backing the proposal, which would bring Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) to be studied in Winona, aiming to bring jobs and business to the first success of a transit vision first dreamed of in the 1950s.
Taxi 2000 has millions of $$$ to give away?
City Manager Eric Sorensen said that the possible grant money would cover the construction of the tracks, cars and study lab at SE Tech, as well as the maintenance for four years. He said that after that point, a possible nonprofit could be formed to take ownership of the infrastructure.
Supporters of the proposal, which include all City Council members except Deb Salyards, say that the test lab would generate jobs and business in Winona. Sorensen said that he envisions Winona producing much of the necessary components, from the cars themselves to the electronic boards that help run the system, and that there is a major potential for collaboration with the city’s three higher education institutions: Saint Mary’s University’s geospatial services department could take the lead on mapping assessments and graphic depictions of the operations. Winona State University, along with its composite engineering programs unique to the nation, could help develop and study the system and infrastructure, and SE Tech could assist in research and development of electronic systems, network administration, mechanical drafting and maintenance.
While the majority of the council seemed excited about the possibility, Salyards seemed skeptical, and voted against applying for the federal grant. She asked why, if this was such great technology, has the private sector not invested in a functioning system?
Mike Lester of Taxi 2000 said that every municipality around the world he’d talked to about PRT had been interested in being the second to employ it, but didn’t want to be the first. Cities around the world, he said, are waiting for the technology to be proven, a feat that could happen right here in Winona.
“We’ve got municipalities all around the world saying, ‘Show me,’” he said.
Council member Gerry Krage asked whether the city would be on the hook for maintenance costs after the grant expires, and who would pay to tear down the system if it fails in the future. Sorensen told the council that he envisioned a 501(c)3 being formed to take ownership of the system, and the cost of any potential decommissioning would be worked into the grant or taken care of by a future nonprofit.
Salyards was not convinced. “If this is the wave of the future, private investors should be paying,” she said, adding that spending taxpayer money frivolously is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away, with no one willing to pull in the reins. “[Taxpayer grant money] is all like free money from heaven,” she said.
City leaders also viewed a map showing a potential “long-term” plan to add 11 more miles of track to the system, running tracks down Sarnia Street and Highway 61, down Huff Street and down Highway 14 to Saint Mary’s University.
Council member Deb Salyards is asking the right questions.