My Turn: Personal rapid transit system may be the way to go

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2001

As congestion grows on Egan Drive wouldn't it be nice if there was a sort of horizontal elevator one could board downtown, press a button and be speeded to Bartlett Hospital, Mendenhall Glacier or Auke Bay without any intermediate stops - a pleasant ride, on an elevated route, in a vista dome car?

Does this sound like futuristic dreaming beyond reality? Not so - Morgantown, W.Va., has such a Personal Rapid Transit system (PRT) that is 25 years old, has hauled 55 million passengers and has never had an accident causing an injury of any sort. Could such a system work in Juneau?

I recently visited Morgantown and made several trips on the PRT. Morgantown is a smaller city than Juneau and is sandwiched between a river and steep crowding hills. A small campus for the state university was established on a downtown hillside. As space was used up a second campus was built just over the hill, then a third over another hill. Connecting the city and its three campuses proved a challenge. More traffic lanes, cloverleaves, overpasses, tunnels, bus routes, parking facilities, the sort of infrastructure that keeps Americans moving, had little potential for Morgantown.

Sen. Robert Byrd secured funds for a prototype system to connect the far-flung campuses so the university could grown and prosper despite the geographic limits. The senator envisioned a system that could better serve the public while reducing the need for extra family automobiles, extra insurance, extra fuel consumption, extra buses, extra costs, extra dangers, extra deaths and all the unpleasant things associated with our ever less accommodating and more dangerous and demanding highway system.

The PRT has a lot of appealing features. The cars are 6 feet wide and 20 feet long holding eight passengers sitting and 12 more standing. The cars are electric and run on truck tires so there is little noise. Where elevated the two direction guideways are supported on single, 3-by-3-foot cement posts. The short cars can turn in a 30-foot radius and there is a loop at each station so cars can be sent either way. The cars can travel at 30 mph and climb a 10 percent grade. The roadbed can be heated to melt snow. The cars reminded me of cars on the Mount Roberts tram and were built by Boeing in Seattle. There are 73 cars, no driver required, that can be dispatched at 15-second intervals. The system is managed by a computer that can park cars when traffic is light and bring them up on demand.

Most appealing is the mainline feature with stations being on sidings so you only stop at your destination. The Morgantown system is designed to move students between classes and university functions as well as accommodating commuting staff and townsfolk. Rush hours are numerous and often unpredictable. A student who wants to visit his lab while the crowd is heading to a ball game at another station can be dispatched as a single passenger in his own car.

Juneau has much in common with Morgantown as a strip city confined between the water and the mountains, being short on extra space and with rather erratic rush hours. The PRT system has not had much appeal for sprawling cities with lots of space but could be just the thing for Juneau, accommodating much of our commuter traffic, visiting shoppers, tourists, students, capital visitors and general traffic. A van system might work with it, as is used in Portland, Ore., to deliver passengers from their doorstep to the light rail stations. Would a PRT blemish our historic old city? Probably not when compared to endless expansion of our automobile infrastructure.

Isn't our congressional delegation in the perfect position to arrange for a study to determine how a next generation PRT could be developed to aggrandize Juneau as a world class capital city, university town and tourist destination while enhancing it as a place to grow up, to raise a family and to retire?

Jim King of Juneau is a member of the CBJ Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee.

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