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Up in the Air

Feeling blue over paltry federal funding for high-speed rail? Forget about it. Two Austin visionaries are already looking ahead to the next transportation innovations.

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When President Barack Obama doled out $8 billion in stimulus dollars to fund high-speed rail development last week, Texas got a paltry $4 million — one half of one-tenth of one percent of the total. This will fund improvements that will increase the speed and reliability of the section of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line between Fort Worth and the Oklahoma border. Even when added to more than $7 million secured in additional federal funding for other rail projects, this will not bring high-speed passenger rail to Texas anytime soon. Speaking in Dallas at the Texas Rail Advocates conference just a day after Obama’s announcement, Assistant Federal Railroad Administration administrator Karen Rae was unapologetic in blaming Texas’s lack of “unified vision” for its inability to make good on its applications for high-speed passenger rail funding.

"If we learned anything from this whole exercise," says Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Karen Amacker, "Texas really needs to get with the program."

Richard Garriott already has. The Austin computer game developer, who has no shortage of vision, is just one example of someone in the private sector with an idea for making mass transit cleaner, safer and more desirable — someone who views the current pipe dream of high-speed rail as obsolete. Fifteen years ago, Garriott began toying with an idea he called "computer-controlled gondolas." "What happened in the intervening years is that many other people have thought of it and invested in it," he says. “Now this hypothetical thing I was talking about is at its time.”

What Garriott originally conceived of as a “gondola” system is now widely referred to as “personal rapid transit.” Passengers walk to one of many conveniently located stations. At their command, a souped-up golf cart pulls up (moving off the main track and onto a separate track so as not to disrupt the constant flow of the system during loading and unloading) and quietly whisks them — and up to three of their friends, plus their bikes, strollers, what have you — over the road traffic below, directly to their destination of choice. Built around the principle of point-to-point transportation on demand, it addresses many of the problems that cause current offerings (buses, rails, trolleys, etc.) to be lightly traveled: the waiting around, the slow travel speeds, the inability to go directly to your destination, the rubbing shoulders with strangers.

Garriott is investing his money in a company called Austin Personal Rapid Transit, which envisions a pervasive network of narrow track throughout the city of Austin teeming with battery-powered, computer-controlled vehicles. His vision is not — as people tend to initially dismiss it — something from The Jetsons or Minority Report. “We are careful not to use the word ‘pod,’” Garriott says. “We’re talking about enclosed golf carts on a track on a telephone pole. These are things that already exist.”

Garriott, who has been taking his idea to neighborhoods around Austin, claims he’s only met with two serious complaints.  Some worry that elevated riders will be able to see into the windows of their homes, and some wonder about the financial feasibility. “An economic model to prove that it’s worth the money is something any reasonable person would want,” Garriott says. “The reason I say it’s time is because somebody else has already bloodied themselves on the wall. Companies are already doing this. It takes it completely out of speculation.”

A functioning PRT system is already operational at London’s Heathrow airport, and there’s a test track — dubbed “Taxi 2000” — running in Minnesota. Using those models, Garriott hopes to lay out the finances of the project within a year. “I personally believe that any solution that you will choose to ride because it’s your best choice compared to your car will be self-sufficient,” he says. Garriott says he's still working out the cost of the Austin PRT system, but a study of personal rapid transit systems prepared for the New Jersey State Legislature found that building the simplest guideway with low-end capacity would run about $15 million, while the most sophisticated, highest-capacity version would cost up to $75 million. If the Austin project can proceed without taxpayer money, Garriott believes implementation could begin in another two to three years. With success in Austin under its belt, Austin PRT would look to spread to other cities. For now, Garriott has chosen to focus on urban areas “because that’s where the problems are.”

"We have a better solution"

Charles Boyd, the CEO of Austin-based Innov8 Transport, wants to push things even further. He believes other developers are “looking to the future with the technology of the past.” His company envisions an electric dual-mode system in which cars operate as they do now on traditional roadways but have the option of entering an electric guideway that would use magnetic levitation to float vehicles across the state at speeds of more than 130 miles per hour — automatically, freeing riders to text their friends, read books, or take their eyes off the road and get a good look at the scenery. “You could kick back, sleep, prepare for your meeting in Dallas,” Boyd says. 

The wait for this solution would naturally be longer: at least four years to figure out the engineering and initial funding followed by extensive construction. That’s long enough to save up, as one would have to do, to buy a new car equipped with a plate that would enable magnetic levitation (freedom of choice in your vehicle’s size and shape is another plus Boyd cites).

This alternative shares many of the same perks (privacy, speed, point-to-point) of Garriott’s PRT but also creates a system that begins in your driveway and ends at your destination (not limited to your city of origin) with no intervening steps.  "It solves the first and last mile,” Boyd says. That’s something high-speed rail can’t do either. “It will also have entrances and exits,” Boyd says. "That’s a benefit it has over high-speed rail. All of the local communities along the guideway can participate in the solution.”

So why even bother with high-speed rail? "I’m concerned that our legislators are getting behind high-speed rail when they’ve not solved the barriers that it had before," Boyd says, "so we're going to spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t solve the problem. We have a better solution, but it’s going to take a little bit of time and money."

Still, many of unanswered questions remain. About safety, for instance. “If you are going to use a fixed guideway that’s elevated,” says Steven Polunksy, the director of the Texas Senate's Transportation & Homeland Security committee, “then how do you protect it from people who have malicious intent, or from natural disasters?" Both Garriott and Boyd promise emergency exits from their respective elevated systems should something go wrong or if computers were to malfunction. Boyd insists that his electric dual-mode highway will have a safety record comparable to air travel. And with all vehicles automatically moving at the same speed, pile-ups shouldn’t be an issue.

Then there’s the matter of funding. Boyd estimates that the guideway could be built for $15 million to $20 million per mile, funded with a combination of private equity, government grants and interest-free loans. “This is not something that the private sector can solve on their own,” says Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Lippincott. Boyd intends to avoid “the land grab business” by using existing right of way — an idea TxDOT has seen before. “The money you save by not having to acquire right of way ends up being spent on engineering,” Lippincott says.

While the innovators work to resolve these and other issues, TxDOT will continue to bolster its “unified vision” for high-speed rail. “We think that’s something our legislative partners will ask us for come January of next year,” Lippincott says, “and we want to have something to show them”

However, TxDOT encourages such ideas from these and similar groups throughout the state. “When we do public involvement activities to determine what solutions are out there to alleviate congestion, these are the kinds of presentations that we listen to,” Amacker says. “Just because it’s not the way we travel now, down the road it might be part of the solution.”

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