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Thursday, July 14, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

In search for transportation solutions, UTC turns to pods

A video game entrepreneur swept into City Hall on Tuesday night to pitch his proposal for a novel transit system to the Urban Transportation Commission.

Richard Garriott laid out a detailed case for Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, which would involve a citywide web of elevated guideways teeming with automated four-person pods carrying passengers from point to point.

Dressed in all black save for the silver snake dangling from a chain around his neck, Garriott argued that PRT is superior to buses or trains because of its on-demand nature and also because the pods would take riders to their destination without making additional stops.

He also said that PRT has an advantage over that other totem of future transportation hopes: the self-driving car.

“I think their adoption rate is going to be far too slow to be impactful in the next couple of decades,” Garriott said. “I think we need a solution that will provide significant relief now, which I think PRT will do.”

He also said that he could secure private funding to build the network, which he said would cost $15 million per mile.

Like gondolas, PRT is one of the more exotic tools in the transportation toolbox and usually attracts attention for its sheer novelty, but there are few real-world examples of a functional system. Garriott repeatedly pointed to the Ultra, which connects London’s Heathrow Airport to a parking lot. That system has three stations and 22 vehicles.

Garriott said he has personally funded a study that looked at a potential 7.2-mile system that would service both West Campus and the 40 acres with as many as 300 vehicles. He also suggested that PRT could connect Mueller to downtown and even run out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

He estimated that the fair-market value for a ride would be 50 cents per mile but said the system could have a variety of ways for riders to pay.

“Some people will just walk up and pay retail,” he said. “Some people will be given a monthly pass, or a free pass, if we decide to do that for our community. And we’ll also make up a ton of it on things like marketing and advertising.”

He showed renderings of what sections of the system could look like on several streets. In each, the elevated guideway was built on the sidewalk.

“If there’s a downside to PRT, it is that you do have to accept a visual change in the above-grade view of your roads,” Garriott said. He explained that utility wires on existing telephone poles would be put into cable trays beneath the guideway. He added that some trees might have to be transplanted.

Garriott told the commission that he has been working on his plan for several years but only began to go public with it after the failed 2014 rail and roads bond.

“All the local city and state officials when I began to talk to (them) about it asked me to wait until that light rail bond had gone through, because most of the politicians at that time had already gone out in support of light rail and they said that if they supported a PRT system, people might think they were becoming soft on light rail,” said Garriott.

In the wake of the 2014 proposition’s overwhelming defeat, Garriott said he decided to act.

“We need every run at transportation solutions,” he said. “We need all hands on deck, the smartest people doing the smartest things, and I think this is one of those pieces.”

He said he has spoken with several key figures around town and has received support from such disparate personalities such as Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and public transit opponent Jim Skaggs.

“Over the years, he’s become a person now who emails me regularly saying, ‘Richard, it’s time. You really just need to get this thing going because we’re going nowhere fast and running in circles and we need to make some solution,’” Garriott said.

He also told commissioners that he has met with state Sen. Kirk Watson and Mayor Steve Adler, whom he simply referred to as “Steve.” Garriott said he made it a point not to ask for Adler’s support while the plans are still in the early stages.

“In my mind’s eye, the worst thing you can ask a politician is to stick their neck out on something and they get eaten up by public backlash just because some due diligence hadn’t been done,” Garriott said. “So we need to do that due diligence for everybody to make sure they can feel comfortable to come out in favor.”

Garriott said he is in the process of getting his study’s findings independently verified. He also solicited political advice from the commission.

“You might know that there’s a big mobility bond happening,” Commissioner Mario Champion said, referencing Adler’s proposed $720 million package currently being polished by city staff. “There’s a lot of money potentially toward the corridor plans. If those corridor plans go forward in ways that do not account for something like PRT, it is going to be very difficult perhaps later on to work them in. I don’t know if you’re already discussing that, but that’s a discussion I would jump into right away.”

Commissioner J.D. Gins provided his own advice. “I would suggest making it dog-friendly,” Gins said.

After Garriott wrapped up his pitch and left the meeting, the commissioners largely expressed their enthusiasm for his proposal. Chair D’Ann Johnson said she would like to figure out a way to get the project started within 18 months.

However, Commissioner Cynthia Weatherby expressed skepticism that Garriott’s promises of quick satisfaction could be met. She said that procuring a fleet of hundreds of pods would take time.

“Plus, in the United States, I think regardless of who operates it, there’s going to be some sort of federal certification for safety involved, which means there’s going to have to be tests done somewhere,” Weatherby said. “Maybe they have a way to get around that, but I’d be surprised about that.”

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City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission: The UTC is the body charged with advising the City of Austin's Mayor and Council on transportation-related issues.

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