November 25, 2009


Notes from the PRT Symposium of Nov. 17, 2009, Rochester, Minnesota, by Margaret Beegle


I.  Welcome and Forum Objectives:


The Acting Director of the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies, Laurie McGinnis, was the moderator. She introduced the two introductory speakers.

Tom Sorel, Commissioner of MNDOT, spoke about the need for a “paradigm shift” in transportation. He brought up high-speed rail and technological advances. He said that there is renewed interest in PRT, as illustrated by the ATRA conference in Santa Cruz last March. He also reported that he gets questioned about PRT “all the time.” The vision of MNDOT is to be a global leader in technology and innovation. It is interested in exploring all options and vetting PRT. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is also supportive of an assessment of the potential of PRT. MNDOT is open to looking at public/private partnerships as a way to fund new transportation innovations. Of course, there are many questions regarding PRT, such as what governmental agency would be responsible for overseeing the implementation and safety of PRT and what kind of organizational structure it would take (at the federal level as well).


Sorel’s welcome and overview was followed by introductory remarks by Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede. He expressed admiration for PRT, indicating that he rode the display model at the State Fair. He suggested that PRT has great potential to supplement current transit, to haul freight, and even to bring in tourism.


II.  Context of PRT and its Potential Applications:


Ferrol Robinson, a prime mover of the symposium and Research Fellow at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, described the context for PRT and what it basically entails. He thinks there is too much competition between modes of transportation and explained that PRT would complement and extend the reach of LRT, buses, etc. It would be a mode that is highly competitive with the automobile (with better speed, in fact).


Robinson discussed the change in Peter Calthorpe’s position. (Calthorpe is a central figure in the field of “New Urbanism) Initially, Calthorpe did not think PRT was going to be workable but he now believes there is a place for it. (2005, 2009).


Features of PRT include being on-demand, nonstop, and point-to-point. It would have predictable and reliable travel times. He described the Sydney, Australia, monorail and its capacity to have stations in buildings, contending that PRT could be just as convenient. Another integral facet of PRT is its low energy consumption and minimization of surface land use. PRT also solves the “last mile” predicament. PRT has both a circulator function and a shuttle capability.


Robinson mentioned several potential local applications of PRT: the downtown central business districts of both Minneapolis and St. Paul; smaller cities like Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, and Mankato; the I-494 Edina and Bloomington corridor; the Maple Grove Gravel Mining Development Area; and the University of Minnesota East and West Banks and Fairview University Hospital.


Concerns about PRT include: It is an “unproven” technology; its visual impact; safety questions like getting stranded on a guideway; PRT’s inability to carry large numbers of people in each vehicle; the security issue of sharing a vehicle with strangers; and uncertainty about capital and operating costs.


Robinson continued with a discussion of system feasibility (i.e., guideway, chassis, cabin design, control systems, stations and maintenance facility design, etc.)


Finally, he listed what needs to be assessed by way of potential benefits: “livability factors,” sustainability, and a cost/benefit analysis.


Steve Raney is Principal Consultant for Advanced Transport Systems (ATS) North America. He spoke about developments in the PRT industry worldwide. There are 30+ companies in existence today. Raney outlined the history of ATS in the U.K, including the present-day status of its ULTRA system being installed in the Terminal 5 area of Heathrow Airport. There are now 45 employees at ATS


Raney stressed that only proven technology is being used. In response to a question about how ULTRA would handle snowy conditions, he responded that ULTRA is using a glass reinforced plastic grid for the track.


Cost is always a main consideration and Raney said that the cost seems to be settling out at between $7 and 15 million/mile.


Raney proposed looking at potential applications for PRT in the I-494 Corridor, which is the second biggest job site in the state. In addition to Southdale Mall and the Galeria, there is a hospital, apartments, and office complexes. He anticipated that the area could use 60 vehicles for six miles of track, along with 15 stations. It would cost in the range of $45-90 million to accomplish. Another possibility is the Ford Plant redevelopment in St. Paul. He could envision five stations and three miles of track for the 124-acre site, with a link to the light-rail train.


Raney indicated that design options are “wide open.” There will always be challenging spots, such as the height of skyways or traveling over water. He also pointed out that ULTRA analyzed 361 hazards in order to guarantee a safe system. He suggested that one way of dealing with safety and other logistical matters is for a city to form a Rail Transit Authority to oversee the PRT development.


In response to a question about running the ULTRA system, Raney indicated that there would be three people in the Control Room at all times. They would take on a “Jack of All Trades” role and each do some maintenance work, run the system, and communicate with customers.


Finally, Raney pointed to the attendant benefit of real estate development that would occur with the creation of a PRT system. 


III.  First Panel


MNDOT representative Tim Henkel described MNDOT as a Transportation Department, not a Highway Department only. He explained that MNDOT is responsible for all transit in the state, from rail to waterways. MNDOT hopes to be in a leadership position in terms of transportation innovation. PRT might be one component in a “toolbox” of options. PRT could complement existing transit systems and shows “great potential.”


Henkel spoke about the changing demographics of Minnesota and the expected increase of transit users due to an aging population, among other variables. He also mentioned environmental justice issues. In terms of traffic congestion, he said distances driven are continuing to increase. Fuel price volatility is another big factor. Finally, he recalled a statement to the effect that cities are the engine of an economy and transportation is like the engine oil.


Arlene McCarthy is a Transit Planner and Operator for the Metropolitan Council. The purview of the Met Council is the seven county metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. McCarthy stated that the Council’s approach is to determine the right solution for the right place. In other words, it stresses a multi-modal approach.


She brought up several concerns about PRT, such as how the fare policy decisions will be made and whether there will be free transfers between modes. She asked if PRT complements or duplicates an existing system. The I-494 corridor, as well as the 394 corridor, are examples of where PRT could be useful. Campuses might also be appropriate places. Another concern was the spacing of stations in the downtown area.


The Met Council also runs the Metro Mobility program. McCarthy stressed that if public funds are used, then accessibility must be guaranteed. Lastly, she contended that a demonstration project is key.


Ed Anderson, PRT International, spoke briefly, crediting Donn Fichter with originating the idea of PRT back in 1953. He also cited Aerospace’s project in 1968 as a critical advance. He suggested two useful websites: and and has written a useful history of the evolution of the PRT concept..


Mike Lester spoke about Taxi 2000’s Skyweb Express high capacity PRT system. He described the Echo Control system they developed that allows ½ second headway between vehicles. Lester agreed that a test track/demonstration system is important.


Naveen Lamba, from IBM, was involved with the Masdar PRT project. With a population of 50,000 people, Masdar is aiming for a zero carbon footprint and a car-free environment.. In that system, PRT vehicles can be reserved and they are also available on demand. There will be ca. 3,000 PRT vehicles circulating within this walled city, eventually.


During the Q&A and discussion period, Mayor Jerry Miller of Winona startled many of us (me) by announcing that his city is volunteering to be the home of the PRT industry (more about this in the Second Panel). He showed us a wonderful glossy brochure that outlines the case.


Arlene McCarthy reminded us that PRT policy will be driven by the funding source. There should also be a local process for deciding to utilize PRT.


Ferrol Robinson stressed outreach to the community and educating people about PRT.


Tim Henkel said he will be soliciting information from cities about their level of interest in PRT almost immediately.


Mike Lester suggested that PRT providers could go to cities and propose systems.


McCarthy acknowledged that improved land values is an important motivator.


Mic Dahlberg brought up the PRT bonding bill for a testing facility in Duluth that passed both Houses of the Minnesota Legislature, to be matched by Oberstar’s Transportation Committee. The Bill was not signed, however. Perhaps MNDOT could assist with the siting and building of a test track?


Henkel reiterated the idea of a partnership venture, with the first step being to ask cities about their interest.


IV.  Second Panel


Winona Mayor Jerry Miller astonished the crowd (me) by offering Winona as the ideal location to be the home of the PRT industry. He asserted that Winona, with a population of 30,000, has both the technological base and the knowledge/technical base to develop the industry, set up a research center, and showcase a test model for all to visit and evaluate. Winona boasts more than 100 companies, many of which could directly benefit PRT, such as its steel foundries and concrete suppliers. He mentioned Rushford, Minnesota, a nearby city, which hosts a nanotechnology company. He spoke specifically about Fastenal and RTP Company. Winona State University, St. Mary’s University, and Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical are among the several educational and research institutions that could be of service. Parking is more of a problem in Winona than is traffic congestion, but PRT would help ease that difficulty as well. In sum, Mayor Miller said that manufacturers are interested and the educational institutions are interested (in fact, a number of them assisted in the production of the glossy brochure). Mayor Miller said that their goal was to work with MNDOT and Taxi 2000 (and/or other PRT companies). He only asked how to go about “selling” the idea to the people.


State Senator Gen Olson described how PRT fits our lifestyle better than other modes of transportation. It offers the opportunity and incentives to get out of the car, but PRT is not “social engineering.” Also, with the economy in its tenuous straits, a new way to create jobs is a great selling point. The opportunity to be first is also appealing to those people excited about American ingenuity and self-reliance. She suggested that public investment might not be so large if private investors can envision the opportunities. Olson thought that “entrenchment” in the Twin Cities might be a problem, but the chances for PRT in greater Minnesota are more hopeful. Perhaps Winona and Rochester could work on a cooperative venture?


State Rep. Tina Liebling represents District 30A, which includes Rochester. She admitted that she has much to learn about PRT and commended MNDOT for co-hosting the symposium. She described PRT as “resource intensive” and a “multi-generational” project. She concluded that a pilot study would be imperative.


V.  Closing Comments


The symposium was brought to a close by Commissioner Sorel. He let us know that a summary of the meeting would appear on MNDOT’s Office of Transit page soon. Sorel again described MNDOT as a catalyst for new transit options. MNDOT owes it to the citizens of Minnesota to give them options for mobility. He reiterated that MNDOT will solicit communities and organizations to learn of their interest in PRT. He concluded with, “The door is open.”

Last modified: December 09, 2009