Some legislators share vision of a future with personal rapid transit

Jason Juno

It’s the Jetsons meets the Twin Cities.

State Rep. Ray Cox, R-Northfield, said he thinks of the popular cartoon when he describes the small cars known as “personal rapid transit.”

The small cars are part of a computer-operated system that runs on a track and appeals to many legislators because it is fast and environmentally friendly. The issue is a likely topic of debate in the 2005 Legislature, because some legislators want to implement the system in Minneapolis.

During the last legislative session, the State House passed a bill to give $4 million to design and build a safety certification and training facility for the system, although Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmerman, Ward 6, said the total cost of the project nears $24 million. The project was part of 2004’s larger bonding bill that did not make it to the Senate for approval.

Bonding bills usually pass once every two years, but one was not passed last year, Cox said. He said the bill should be taken care of this year.

The Minneapolis idea

Zimmerman has a vision for city residents and University students moving around.

Get on the Campus Connector to the West Bank, get into a personal rapid transit car and be brought, nonstop, to one of 68 stops in his plan. The tracks extend from downtown to Uptown Minneapolis, to the Hiawatha light rail line.

Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, said he is a “strong supporter” of mass transit but doubts the technology is there for personal rapid transit.

Zimmerman said the world’s only company to have software to make personal rapid transit work is SkyWeb Express, based in Fridley, Minn. Former University professor J. Edward Anderson came up with personal rapid transit in the 1970s. He is now chairman and chief executive officer of Taxi 2000, the company that owns SkyWeb Express, which is the technical name for personal rapid transit.

Zimmerman said a prototype would be built and tested if legislation passed. He said the system is “perfect” in theory, but it must be tested.

Solberg said he has read studies that do not prove personal rapid transit works. Other states have also turned the system down, he said.

“As a rural legislator, I’m interested, of course, in mass transit,” Solberg said. “But I want it to be effective and get lots of people out of cars.”

One author of the personal rapid transit bill, Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, said there were three attempts made to take personal rapid transit out of the bonding bill and add the Northstar commuter rail instead.

The bill also gives tax incentives for investing in the system and making it without taxpayer subsidies, he said. Olson said Senate leadership indicated it would take the same position.

Olson said he will be pushing for more personal rapid transit funding in 2005, with a goal of more tax incentives for private companies.

Why personal transit?

Supporters said personal rapid transit is more beneficial than other ways of transportation because it has a predictable trip time, no emissions other than electricity and no noise.

Olson said he believes personal rapid transit will help the economy and give people choice. He said bus systems were rerouted to force people onto Hiawatha light rail transit. He also said he believes transit ridership has decreased since the light rail started.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said the transit line was restructured in Minnesota in south Minneapolis, Bloomington, Edina, Richfield and west St. Paul to support the light rail.

Zimmerman’s plan connects to bus routes, the light rail and, if built, Northstar commuter rail.

Approximately 2,000 cars would be needed for his plan, he said.

Under his plan, personal rapid transit would go to the Target Center and the Metrodome, plus three major hospitals, six skyway stops, some large offices, grocery stores, a convention center and more.

“Imagine what a draw this could be for Minneapolis,” he said. “Let’s go ride on that sky thingy.”