Mountain View Voice

News - April 2, 2010

Could investors fund city's transportation future?

Council resolution favors general concept of 'personal rapid transit'

by Daniel DeBolt

A company that has set up shop at NASA Ames Research Park claims its system for automated pod travel could lift Mountain View out of its traffic and public transportation woes — and the city may not have to spend a dime on it.

So claims Unimodal Inc., which says that for the first city to say yes, it can build its SkyTran system — small cars or "pods" which move about automatically on a network of rails, heading to their destination at the push of a button — while getting all of the funding from private investors.

"Investors have told us, bring us a project and we'll finance it," said Robert Baertsch, Unimodal's vice president of software engineering.

Though the jury is still out on the merits of such a system, the City Council has already made a preliminary step in its favor. On Feb. 23, the council unanimously supported "the general concept of an automated personal rapid transit (PRT) system in Mountain View" after being lobbied by another PRT company — one not located at Moffett — called ULTra.

The city is considering a PRT system from the downtown train station to the Shoreline area, where young employees from Google and Microsoft are expected to embrace its cutting-edge means of moving people around.

Council members say it is premature to call PRT their favorite transportation solution for the Shoreline area, but so far its purported low cost and efficiency looks attractive in comparison to the light rail and shuttle services touted for Shoreline Boulevard over the years. Light rail projects have cost $100 million per mile while SkyTran would cost only $10 million per mile, according to Baertsch. The company claims its passive magnetic levitation technology is a breakthrough in terms of cost and efficiency.

Baertsch said his company is "getting extremely close" to securing several million in venture capital funding to finish developing SkyTran.

Unimodal believes SkyTran fares could generate revenue for local government agencies while buses and light rail do not. In tough economic times, Baertsch said, Mountain View officials may be happy to know that the first city to agree to a SkyTran system will not have to spend a dime on it.

That city would also get a SkyTran factory as part of the deal, Baertsch said — "That's part of the package."

Valley support

San Jose International Airport and the University of Michigan are among other locations considering a SkyTran system. But while Michigan's desire to reinvent itself as the center of transportation technology is attractive, Unimodal wants to create what it believes will be a multibillion industry in Silicon Valley, said Elizabeth Thompson, the company's director for strategic partnerships.

The technology still has to be tested, and Unimodal is planning to build a 1,000-foot oval test track on the tarmac behind Hangar Two at Moffett Field. NASA Ames director Pete Worden is highly supportive of the project, and the space agency's technology is expected to find its way into SkyTran engineering, Baertsch said.

Unimodal envisions a system serving a redeveloped NASA Ames Research Park, running across Stevens Creek to Google headquarters, to downtown Mountain View and eventually expanding all the way to the San Jose airport, where a request for proposals for a PRT project connecting it to the Santa Clara train station is expected later this year, Baertsch said.

New relevance

The City Council's resolution opens the door for PRT to be studied for the Shoreline area as the city updates its General Plan. The council has supported allowing Google, Microsoft and other companies to build buildings up to seven stories high in the Shoreline Area, which could pose traffic management challenges for the neighborhood north of Highway 101.

"How we get around is probably just as important to think about as the buildings themselves," said council member John Inks.

Council member Mike Kasperzak said he finds the idea of PRT in Mountain View "exciting" and was impressed with SkyTran's prototype during a recent visit to Unimodal's modest facility at NASA Ames.

And on a recent trip to London he was able to experience the ULTra PRT system being tested at Heathrow Airport. Ultra's pods are battery powered cars riding on cement paths at up to 30 miles per hour. He said the ride was "smooth" and something like a ride at Disneyland.

Steve Raney, principal for ATS ULTra North America, said Mountain View was the first city in the country to pass a resolution in favor of PRT as a concept.

Despite the interest, in tough budget times council members said it was unlikely the city could fund such a project. An 8.5-mile-long system with 24 stations would cost between $60 million and $130 million, according to a city staff report.

How to fund

Among the fans of Personal Rapid Transit and SkyTran is transportation guru Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute. He said the city could probably qualify for federal funding for the project if necessary, especially if it could be shown that it would create jobs quickly.

To qualify, matched funding of 20 percent would have to come from the city's Shoreline Community tax district, the Valley Transportation Authority or the Shoreline tech companies that would make use of PRT. Before federal funds could even be applied for, the city would have to find $1 million for initial studies, Diridon said. He recommended working with the VTA to expand PRT regionally.

Unimodal has already worked with Google, which considered using SkyTran to connect a new million-square-foot campus at NASA Ames to Hangar One, which they have considered using as a parking lot, Baertsch said. And Google's co-founder, Larry Page, has made comments about his personal interest in PRT technology.

The city of San Francisco asked SkyTran for the costs of a seven-mile system on Geary Street. Using the current fare box revenue for the Geary Street buses, Baertsch calculated that the system would begin to turn a profit after four years. More than 3,000 people per square mile are needed to make a profit with SkyTran, the company says, and Mountain View has about 6,000 people per square mile.

High speeds

The light rail system in Santa Clara County has been little used in part because of its slow speed — it averages 12 miles per hour in some places. SkyTran plans for 50 mile per hour speeds just to start off, but is designed to reach up to 150 miles per hour. Unimodal claims that one SkyTran guideway can provide the capacity of three freeway lanes.

Because of its light weight, the system supposedly can be mounted from light poles — no expensive new infrastructure needed. Unimodal says SkyTran's benefits are due to its "passive mag-lev" technology the company is developing, which allows the pods to basically float on their overhead guideways once at speed.

If PRT really turns out to be affordable and safe (Unimodal says it is 20 times safer than a car and safer than flying), then its appearance may be its hardest selling point.

"It looks kind of futuristic," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga. "I'm not sure if folks would be open to that."

Baertsch said Unimodal was not attached to the exterior design of the pods, and joked that the company would build retro style pods that looked like San Francisco trolley cars if that's what people wanted.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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