“People on the
right, people on the left, we have the common goal of moving people
with transit, but doing it in the most cost-effective manner, in fact,
in a manner that may end up costing no government subsidy, it may end
up paying for itself.”
Bachmann, in a 2004 Minnesota Public Radio interview.
may have seen freshman Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) plant a
big kiss on President Bush after his recent State of the Union speech.
You may have heard that Bachmann claimed God told her to run for
Congress. What many people do not know about Bachmann is that she
wrote legislation for and promoted a bizarre scheme to fleece
taxpayers and investors of millions of dollars. The scheme called
Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) would have also served as a stalking
horse to stop funding for conventional transit.
PRT is a futuristic transportation
concept is supposed to comprise of thousands of little pods on an
elevated monorail-like structure with many off-line stations. After
thirty years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on PRT
research, there are no true PRT systems in operation anywhere in the
world, although there have been many failed attempts.
The Nixon-era PRT project at West Virginia University in Morgantown is
one example. The Morgantown PRT is not true PRT since it uses very
heavy vehicles and infrastructure. Originally estimated at $14 million
the PRT project in Morgantown ended up costing $126 million (as of
1979) -- about $319 million in 2004 dollars. The Morgantown PRT has
been plagued by glitches and breakdowns over the years. A WVU student
reported that the breakdowns occur when squirrels stepped on the third
rail, shorting out the system, and leaving the fried carcasses of
squirrels littering the guideway.
In the middle to late 1990s, PRT "visionary" Professor J. Edward
Anderson, convinced the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) of
Illinois to fund a PRT project for an industrial park in Rosemount,
Illinois. Raytheon, a military contractor, agreed to build it. The
project was discontinued due to cost overruns and technical snafus.
Total losses in public and private investment in the Raytheon PRT
project are estimated at $67 million.
J. Edward Anderson's PRT company Taxi 2000 tried to get city after
city to fund a PRT testing facility. In Cincinnati, promoters of PRT
managed to convince U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky to release $500,000 in
federal money for a PRT project they called Skyloop. Skyloop was
rejected by a regional planning committee after engineers found the
PRT concept to be unsafe and infeasible.
In recent years, bills and amendments were introduced into the
Minnesota legislature by then State Senator Michele Bachmann and
others that granted bonding, regulatory and tax advantages to develop
a PRT industry in Minnesota. Not one of these bills survived the
legislative process, but along the way the PRT bills provided a
platform for anti-transit, pro-highway politicians like Senator now
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Rep. Mark Olson and others to
denounce conventional transit as too expensive or old-fashioned.
For over 30 years, PRT had support from anti-transit, pro-highway
groups. PRT had no support from traditional grassroots transit
advocacy groups such as Transit for Livable Communities and the Sierra
Club North Star, both of which have resolutions opposing the public
funding of PRT on their web sites.
Perhaps the high point for PRT promoters at the Minnesota Legislature
was the 2004 session when a PRT bonding bill for $4 million was passed
by the House only to be extinguished in a conference committee. Things
went quickly downhill for PRT promoters after that.
Late in 2004, PRT "visionary" Professor J. Edward Anderson was
prevented from regaining control of the Taxi 2000 Corp. One bitter
shareholder wrote in a letter to the Pioneer Press, "I was present at
all of the relevant shareholder meetings and can affirm without
reservation that this company was taken over by a gang of political
opportunists led by one Morrie Anderson"
In 2005, the Taxi 2000 Corp. filed a lawsuit against J. Edward
Anderson and two associates. The lawsuit was settled, but Taxi 2000
has shown few signs of life since. The Taxi 2000 Corp. Web site has
not posted any news since the lawsuit.
Also in 2005, one of PRT's most energetic promoters, Minneapolis
Councilman Gary Dean Zimmermann, was investigated and charged by the
U.S. Attorney's Office with extorting bribes from a developer.
Zimmermann subsequently lost his seat on the council to Robert
Lilligren, a supporter of conventional transit. Zimmermann was tried
and convicted on three counts of bribery and he is now serving a two
and a half year sentence in a Federal Correctional Facility in
PRT has since lost its support among liberal and moderate Minnesota
politicians. An attempt by Rep. Mark Olson to attach a PRT amendment
to a bonding bill in the Minnesota House on April 12, 2006 was voted
down 26 to 107. Mark Olson was re-elected Nov. 7, but was arrested and
jailed for domestic assault five days later. Olson was expelled form
the Republican caucus and will likely be expelled from the legislature
following his trial.
Although the Taxi 2000 Corporation lawsuit and the trials of its most
prominent promoters, Olson and Zimmermann likely sealed PRT's fate in
Minnesota, a far more important factor in the demise of PRT in
Minnesota was the phenomenal success of the Hiawatha Light Rail Line
which has far exceeded ridership projections.
With growing public awareness and concern about Global Warming, it's
only a matter of time before the PRT "gadgetbahners" ask the Federal
Government to fund research into their "green technology". When it
happens, I hope public official don't make the same costly mistake
other public officials made and instead, invest the taxpayers' money
in proven, cost-effective transit systems with long records of safety
is Transportation Editor of the
Twin Cities Daily Planet.