by Sarah Squires
It might seem like science fiction, but local leaders say it could be the wave of Winona’s future: a test site for a transit system featuring pod-like cars that ride along tracks built high over the city.
Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems have garnered some interest from state leaders, with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) recently appointing a new director of PRT technology. And, after meeting with industry and Mn/DOT officials on the potential for such a new system, Mayor Jerry Miller has thrown Winona’s name in the hat as a potential site for a $25 million test bed.
Local leaders say that such a test bed could help spur job creation, and that composite companies in the area could potentially build components of the system, too. They say that such a PRT test site would be used, but wouldn’t aim to solve any big transit problems in Winona, rather it would serve as a site that could demonstrate how the new technology works for other interested cities and officials.
“This pilot plant could serve as a place where people could come and see how it works,” said Miller of the idea. “They could get a concept of what it would look like in a bigger community.”
Miller said that the city is looking at a combination of federal dollars and private donations, and is currently studying what kind of plans it would need in place to apply for federal dollars. Although city leaders had discussed lobbying for state bonding dollars, Miller said that’s probably off the table. “I think we’re going to stay away from the state,” he said.
Council member Tim Breza said that the idea, if implemented in Winona, would be a huge benefit for the community. “That also means a continued stream of money that goes into the system that comes to Winona,” he said. “Jobs and money.”
The location of a potential pilot program has not yet been determined, said Miller. Southeast Technical College has been an idea, and Miller said that other potential sites will be examined. For instance, he said, a test site could run from somewhere on the city’s East End to a hotel complex, or to Winona Health.
Council member Debbie White said that such a test lab here in Winona is an innovative, creative concept that could benefit the area and region greatly. “I think it has a lot of possibilities,” she said. “And it sounds like we have all the right ingredients to incubate this project.”
PRT: no track record
Passion lies on both sides of the PRT argument, with plenty of folks supporting the creation of such transit and those who say it’s unproven, inefficient and the wrong direction for public transportation.
While some past projects have failed due to cost elevations, safety concerns and problems with maintenance system software, one PRT pilot system is expected to be completed at London Heathrow Airport in the UK next spring, which could pave the way for more projects.
One of PRT’s most outspoken critics, Dr. Vukan Vuchic, Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a 2007 book, “Urban Transit Systems and Technology,” which argues against PRT as a model for future transit.
Calling the concept “inherently unsound,” Vuchic says that complicated and expensive guideways coupled with low density small vehicles doesn’t make sense anywhere. In big cities, he says, where transit needs could justify the cost of guideways, small low density cars can’t meet the need for transit. And in smaller cities, where such low density cars would be feasible, the cost of guideway infrastructure outweighs the need for such transit. “Consequently, the combination of the two features -- small vehicle and complicated guideway -- is paradoxical and makes the PRT mode impractical under all conditions.”