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Perchance to Dream: The Public Transit Fix We Never Got and Probably Never Will.

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The challenge of providing access to consistent, sustainable, and affordable public transportation in Anchorage comes with no easy answers. In Fairview and Mountain View, upward of half the residents do not have a vehicle and rely on bus service. In Eagle River and the south end of town, there isn’t significant ridership. The result is an ongoing fight between people who depend on a needed service, and people who don’t use it and don’t want to pay for it.
Representing the International Institute of Sustainable Transportation, Kjensmo Walker came to Anchorage last month to propose a fix.
The Minnesota native became involved in sustainable public transportation out of necessity.
“I had a seizure while I was driving,” she told a dozen mostly city workers nestled in the William Marston theater. “[T]hey told me that I was no longer a healthy person, that I had a disability, that I… could not drive. And because I could not drive I could not work, so I lost my job.”
Now unemployed and immobile, Walker began looking for alternative solutions. She dreamed big, and was here to share her findings:

Meet “Urban Light Transit,” a battery operated, 200mpg-equivalent, “Personal Rapid Transit” (PRT), fully automated pod car. As the video states:
“Stations are on a separate track from the main track, so that stopped vehicles do not interfere with the free flow of passing traffic. With ULTra, you don’t wait for vehicles. Vehicles wait for you. Modern communications and location sensing technology allow vehicles to run at precisely controlled intervals, creating a high capacity system.”
Imagine a custom trip from your doorstep to work, in the privacy of your own pod car, where you can read or check email – no hour-long waits or dealing with the weird guy smelling your hair at the bus stop (it happens). All in a third of the time it takes to drive.
Those present greeted Walker with beyond-skeptical looks at the absurd pipe dream.
Walker didn’t flinch. Instead, she introduced us to Morgantown, West Virginia, and its super-space-age-magic-technological era we have come to call “The 70s.”
In 1968, Morgantown won a federal grant to install a PRT model servicing West Virginia University and the surrounding town of under 30,000. The network comprises five different transit stations with a maximum five-minute wait.
Morgantown’s PRT is not cost effective. Students are not charged to ride and the cost of aging archetypal infrastructure adds up. But Walker quickly pointed out that a modest fare increase, from free to $1.50 per ride, would translate to a healthy annual six-figure surplus. That’s a quarter less than the current fare in Anchorage.
Right around the same time as West Virginia was proposing their crazy idea that totally worked, Alaska was making some loud proposals too. Drunk off of our new projected oil wealth, we dreamed big too.
Actually, we dreamed way bigger.
In a March, 1970 issue of “Popular Science,” Jim Davis introduced a national audience to an Alaska-sized idea:

The world’s first completely enclosed city will start to rise in a few months, and eventually will house 40,000 people in a climate-controlled environment. The city is being built two miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska, and is named – with a respectful bow to a damaged reputation – Seward’s Success.

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The utopian development was slated for Point MacKenzie. The first building to be constructed was, predictably, a headquarters for petroleum operations. Quickly following: “600,000 feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, and a completely enclosed sports arena.” The first phase of construction was estimated to be $170 and would erect housing for 5,000. The Tulsa engineering firm designing the structure projected a population of 10,000 within five years. The projected price tag for the whole project was $800 million.
And how did people move around the massive climate controlled dome city? Personal Rapid Transit.
Walker didn’t mention our own state’s flirtation with the technology now popping up all over the world, including London’s Heathrow International Airport. It probably wouldn’t have made much difference. We are very far removed from when, as Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Dermot Cole recounted, we looked forward to a “future untroubled by financial worries.”
In present day, the Personal Rapid Transit discussion – just one small component of the dome city that almost happened – really is a pipe dream, despite its firm existence in functioning reality.
In 2013, we’re forced to take stock of our current progress report. Just how far removed are we from the wildly idealistic vision that created “Seward’s Success?”
The University of Alaska Anchorage athletics department has had a bad year, but it looks like we’re getting the $100 million sports arena all the same. We’re likely to get the people too. Population growth is expected over the next several years. Big Oil is still here and increasingly well taken care of. The monorail across the Knik Arm to the massive, privately-funded, $800 million dome city has been replaced with a two lane bridge to undeveloped land that will cost somewhere between $1.6 and $2.6 billion. And the latest solution to public transportation, offered by the assembly? Taxi cabs.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi, an oil rich state in the United Arab Emirates, went ahead and built “Seward’s Success.”

I think we need to remember how to dream.

1 COMMENT

  1. “Don’t want to pay for it”?
    I’ll make you a deal, the folks who don’t use public transit can not-pay for their share of it when the folks who don’t own a car can not-pay their share for 90% of road construction and maintenance, since that’s about how much of it is for personal vehicles and they don’t use it. Deal?

    • I’ve never really understood the philosophy that if you’re not personally using a public service, you should have no obligation to pay into it. If it’s for a sports stadium, I can understand a little better if you want to block funding. But for public transit? Why wouldn’t that seem like a necessity?

    • And born is the problem of privatization fueled by income inequality. Wealth horders have enough wealth to opt out of the social contract, and the poor can’t get to work. Vulture capitalism at a community level.

  2. I think there’s a great deal of self-fulfilling prophecy involved. The Dan Sullivans of the world think that public transit is flawed, in priciple, so they will do nothing to make it work. Therefore, it fails in reality and meets their preconceived notions.
    As a valley commuter, I would gladly pay marginally increased costs for something that works. I can tell you based on experience that the current one-big-freeway approach is failed. I’ve spent too many hour-long standstills on the Glenn and faced down too many $500-a-month gas bills to believe that the current transportation system is adequate. I’ve been on the NYC subway at 2 a.m. and felt a hundred times safer than any morning commute after a snowfall (and it got me anywhere I wanted to go, any time).
    If I ever leave Alaska, one major reason will be the lack of public transportation. The Valley Mover is great at getting people in to downtown, but People Mover is consistently 30 minutes or more late, so if you have to connect to another bus, forget it. The only people who can use it effectively are those who don’t have to be anywhere at any particular time (like a job). I tried to make it work last fall but as the temperatures dipped below zero I got a little tired of standing out in the cold for 45 minutes past the time when the bus was supposed to arrive.
    At this point I’m putting all my hope on the Alaska Railroad getting funding for the remaining parts of its commuter rail project. They are self-funded and can mostly bypass the Muni. Still, the problem lies in making the connection to the broken People Mover system.

  3. I’m a PRT advocate and mostly agree with what Ms Walker had to say. Though I would not recommend a battery powered system or an Ultra type guideway for Anchorage. I’m sure everyone here knows cold temps are hard on batteries. Snow and ice would need to be cleared as well which is a challenge for an automated system that is mostly elevated. A suspended system with an internal power rail would be a smarter choice. Though a company by the name of Vectus has their test track in Sweden with tough winter conditions and it seems to work well there.
    PRT uses existing technology for the guideways, stations, and pods. There are at least three companies with proven software to control many vehicles safely in tough weather conditions. The main issue is lack of prior systems in the US outside of Morgantown. Estimated costs seem to be in the $15-20 Million per mile range compared to Light Rail being in the $60 Million per mile range. This works out to about 50 cents per mile which is much less than what bus & light rail cost.
    You can see several videos on YouTube if you search for “personal rapid transit”

    • Elevated tracks absolutely make the most sense, but the permitting and studies needed to make it feasible, given the seismic activity in the area, make that a tough sell. The PR campaign needed to get the public into the possibility of a brand new public transit system would be dwarfed by fear of losing it all in a quake. Didn’t Vectus also run into trouble with their Suncheon Bay system?