Southwest Councilmember seeks support for Personal Rapid Transit technology
City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) is lobbying for a mass transit technology that may set a new standard for inner-city travel.
Taxi 2000, a Fridley-based company, developed Skyweb Express, a monorail system running 16 feet above ground. It features a fleet of automated Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) vehicles — each seating three to six people — that take passengers on a private, nonstop journey to any station in the network at a speed of about 30 miles per hour.
No city has adopted the technology, but Zimmermann thinks it makes sense for Minneapolis — especially along the Midtown Greenway and neighborhoods between Lake Street and downtown.
"This is going to be the most significant innovation for cities since the introduction of the automobile," Zimmermann said. "It’s an efficient way to move people around an urban area without the two scourges we now have–parking problems and road congestion. Plus, there is no pollution from it because it is electric."
(PRT itself wouldn’t generate pollution where it runs, but pollution would be produced at the plant where the electricity is generated.)
According to Zimmermann, PRT is cheaper to operate than buses or light rail: 38 cents per passenger mile, versus 50 cents and $1.42 respectively. It’s also cheaper to build than light rail.
If the lower costs are true, the Midtown Greenway could be PRT’s perfect springboard.
The Greenway is a bike/pedestrian/transitway between 28th and 29th streets, eventually extending from the Chain of Lakes to the Mississippi River. So far, a multineighborhood transit group favors trolleys for the Greenway’s mass transit, while Hennepin County holds out hope for light rail.
Zimmermann envisions a PRT system that could be built for less than light rail, yet extends deep into local neighborhoods.
"For $315 million, you get 4 miles of track and six stations in light rail," said Zimmermann. "The same investment will get you a 4-mile-by-2-mile [PRT] loop plus 42 stations."
Zimmermann — a geographer and former truck driver — has drawn up a tentative but detailed map of a 42-station system snaking 30 miles between Lake Street, downtown and the University of Minnesota.
In his vision, there are two large loops off the Midtown Greenway on either side of I-35W; the Southwest loop runs along Hennepin Avenue and I-94 and I-35W frontage roads, with spurs along Lyndale, Nicollet and Franklin avenues, and 26th and Lake streets. The loops connect through downtown to the U.
A station would be located at every area public housing high-rise and many major institutions such as the Convention Center, Target Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and local hospitals.
For Zimmermann’s 6th Ward constituency — many of whom live in Stevens Square and Whittier in Southwest, as well as the Phillips neighborhood — PRT could be a boon because so many do not own cars. PRT could also alleviate traffic and congestion that plagues those neighborhoods.
One aesthetic downside is that in some areas, PRT’s elevated rails may run next to the second-story windows of homes — which Zimmermann acknowledges is a legitimate concern. His design worked to minimize traffic that goes down residential streets by using MNdot right-of-ways and the Midtown Greenway
"It’s not like the ‘El’ in Chicago," Zimmermann said. "It’s not loud or big, and it is almost totally silent because the cars are pulled along by a magnet."
The technology has been in the works for over 30 years. Professor Ed Anderson of the University of Minnesota (which owns the patent) developed it. A 60-foot prototype is located at Taxi 2000’s Fridley lab.
Taxi 2000 Director of Business Development Jeral Poskey said, "The technology has been proven a number of ways and a number of times. Everything has been well designed. We don’t feel like we are in a discovery phase to find out whether or not it is going to work. It works."
According to Poskey, PRT is a technology that can pay for itself if put in heavy-traffic areas where people will use it. He hopes Minneapolis will build a half-mile loop with three PRT cars and a station for testing within two years.
Poskey said Hong Kong, Cincinnati and Duluth have also expressed interest in the project. (Duluth is trying to get $10 million in state support for a $24 million, 0.4-mile test track.)
Zimmermann said he plans to pitch the idea to every neighborhood group, business association and person who will listen.
The southside Green Party Councilmember has found support from north-side DFLer Barb Johnson, (4th Ward). Johnson, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, remembers her mother, former City Council President Alice Rainville, talking about PRT back in the 1970s when Anderson came before the Metropolitan Transit Commission seeking support for it.
Johnson rode in a PRT car at the State Fair. She believes that in select places, PRT would be a good addition to the mass transit already in place in Minneapolis.
"The beauty of this is that it can be privately owned and regulated like a public utility," said Johnson. "It appears rather Jetsons-like. It’s quiet, it’s Spartan, but it’s comfortable."
Johnson cites local economic development for her support. "Someone is going to buy it," she said. "The University of Minnesota developed it, so I think that Minneapolis should be the city that assists them in getting off the ground. As chair of the Council Ways and Means Committee, I’ve been peering under rocks to try and find some money to assist in the planning for the prototype."
She sees another economic incentive for PRT: "The city who gets it first is going to get the training and testing jobs and will end up being the center of the industry. We would like to see it in Minneapolis."
Not every Councilmember is convinced. Gary Schiff (9th Ward) said he knows very little about PRT. He thinks that a trolley system along the Midtown Greenway, similar to a system in Portland, Ore. would be a better choice.
"The city of Portland has integrated trolleys into their mass transit system. It’s up and running, it’s revenue-generating and it works," Schiff said. "There is a bill in Congress right now that will open the door for the federal funding of trolleys. The focus of my office is on trolleys."
A Council committee postponed forming a PRT study group Jan. 20 to get more information on the technology. It will reconsider forming a groupo of met Councilmembers and state local officials at a later date.
Johnson has been in contact with Republican State Senator Gen Olson and Republican Representative Bruce Anderson about PRT. Both will introduce bills during the coming legislative session to add PRT to the list of items the state can bond for. Another bill will allow local government to spend taxpayer dollars for PRT.
To get a look at PRT technology, go to www.skywebexpress.com/