Four U grad students work on personal rapid transit design

Some consider personal rapid transit more efficient than any other mass transit system.

Britt Johnsen

Between classes, plans to study abroad and getting internships, four University graduate students work to push transportation technology further.

The graduate students are working with Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmerman, 6th Ward, to create conceptual designs for Minneapolis’ first personal rapid transit system.

“This is the most efficient transit system ever devised,” Zimmerman said as he marveled over his laptop presentation of the design.

The design includes small, bubble-like cars that run on a computerized rail. The line, which serves about eight square miles, is elevated 16 feet and held on two-foot diameter posts. Each station will hold between three and 15 cars.

The design includes a stop on the West Bank. Zimmerman said using the system enables a person to get from one end of Minneapolis to the other in less than 10 minutes.

To get public and financial support, Zimmerman and other City Council members will present the design to every Minneapolis business association and neighborhood organization, beginning Feb. 13.

Former University mechanical engineering professor J. Edward Anderson created personal rapid transit in the 1970s, now called SkyWeb Express under Taxi 2000 ownership. Anderson is the president and chief executive officer of Taxi 2000.

In 1983, the University gave Anderson a $100,000 grant. A stipulation of the grant included that the University receives 10 percent of personal rapid transit profits.

“You just push this button and go,” he said, pointing inside the red prototype. The model, which opened in early 2003 in Fridley, Minn., runs on a 60-foot track and is designed to educate the public.

“I think a lot of people are approaching it with curiosity and preconceptions of what it might be,” said graduate student Craig Wilson, who got involved with the project this summer when he worked with Zimmerman on the City Council.

Judd Caraway, another architecture graduate student working on the designs, agreed.

“I wasn’t sold on it until I actually started looking at it,” he said.

These students have worked since early this month on the design. The system would host 68 stations around Minneapolis.

The system already has support in Duluth, Minn., where the City Council voted unanimously to build a test track near the city.

Tom Cotruvo, business development director in Duluth, said he is hope the Legislature will give the city money this session to implement the project immediately.

“We’re really looking forward to it,” Cotruvo said. “I can’t really think of any reason why someone wouldn’t be in favor of it.”

The entire project will cost between $400 million and $600 million. Though cheaper than light rail, which costs $715.3 million, some officials are still skeptical.

Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow, 1st Ward, said Minneapolis will not be able to finance the project.

Peter McLaughlin, Hennepin County commissioner for Fort Snelling and Minneapolis, said the Hiawatha light rail project is his priority.

“I’m not against (PRT), but there are only 24 hours in a day,” McLaughlin said.

Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, said he has introduced six SkyWeb Express bills that 40 state officials have co-authored.

If the city passes the resolution and the project receives funding, Zimmerman said, the system would need at least two years to build and test.

City Council transportation and community development committees will decide Feb. 10 whether to pass the resolution.

City Council member Paul Zerby, 2nd Ward, said he is “not totally sold on it,” but is waiting to find out more.

“It could be interesting, but I’ll wait and see,” he said.