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Is Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) the future of Santa Cruz transportation?

cover1_0709When it comes to Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), Santa Cruz PRT, Inc. would like to make one thing very clear: “Don’t mention The Jetsons.” PRT may recall space-age predictions, with its elevated tracks and zippy podcars, but, according to its advocates, it is not futuristic – it is here and it is now.


“It’s out-of-the-box thinking, but it is 21st-century technology, and it’s starting to explode all over the world,” says Reed Searle, president of Santa Cruz PRT, Inc. (SCPRT). According to his group, the form of transportation is no longer merely the stuff of dreams—and hasn’t been for some time. Morgantown, WV., has been operating a successful, albeit a tad rudimentary, PRT system since 1975. Several modern projects are underway around the world, like at London’s Heathrow airport, where an Ultra PRT system will be unveiled for full passenger use any day.
PRT Video Montage

A demonstration system is under construction at the NASA Ames research center in Santa Clara County, and the City of San Jose has acquired significant funding to move forward with designing a PRT route and obtaining a contractor.

If SCPRT sees its vision realized in Santa Cruz, the system would be less fanciful than Nasa’s (“it’s too techy for us,” says Ed Porter, a SCPRT member), smaller and quicker than the large-car Heathrow version (which is “simply an airport people-mover” and halts at every stop throughout the terminals) and significantly more modern than Morgantown’s. “We want the smaller, stream-lined version we’ve pictured for Santa Cruz,” says Porter, a teacher at Santa Cruz High School and former city councilmember whom Searle calls “the guiding light of the Santa Cruz PRT movement.”

PRT to UCSC demonstration

The proposed system entails four-person cars, nearly noiseless tracks, and the ability to run mainly off of solar power. When Santa Cruz PRT, Inc. first formed in 1992 (it was Citizens for PRT until recently becoming a non-profit), its members drew up grand plans for a line that would run all over Santa Cruz County, solving the predicament of south county commuters. Skepticism and financial realities have whittled that route down over the years—it now just circles around the most compact parts of the City of Santa Cruz. The suggested route follows Beach Street along the Boardwalk and wharf, moves through downtown, up to Harvey West Park, and through Pogonip to UC Santa Cruz. “You could get from UCSC to downtown in six or seven minutes,” says Porter, adding that, unlike a bus, PRT would only stop at the destination you wish.

Porter says that, eventually, there would be a station at the juncture of Highways 1 and 9 where visitors could park, leave their cars, and hop into a podcar. Even without that station, the current proposal allows for tourists to leave their cars at their hotels or come using.

cover_Ultra1_PRTArrive at one of the above-ground stations—preferably by bike or foot— approach a podcar, or call one to your station if there isn’t one waiting, and stick in your ATM card or pass—the hope is that it will be one-in-the-same as a bus pass)—and off you go. The cars would be easily accessible for people in wheelchairs and those wishing to bring along their bikes.

Because PRT is all-electric, and thus emission free, it would help Santa Cruz significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed plan would cost between $100 and $150 million depending on design choices, which Porter says, although pricey, works out to less than other ideas.

“When we were looking at the cost of building the new lanes on Highway 1 a few years ago, it was figuring out to about $35 million a mile for one lane,” he says. “The prices we are seeing now for PRT are between $5 and $15 million per mile.”

According to Henry Servin, an engineer with the City of San Jose’s Transportation Department and rail program liason manager, San Jose has the funding to begin stage one of their PRT project and hopes to have the initial segment of the line running by 2014.

But at present, with a multi-million dollar deficit on its hands, it is unlikely that the city can afford even the less expensive transit projects.

“We’re realists, and we know there isn’t public money sitting around,” says Porter. SCPRT expects the project to be born of a mixture of public and private financing, with an emphasis on the latter. If a private developer took on the endeavor, SCPRT foresees the city having a say in the process and the ability to eventually take it over completely. Because, even without any public funding, the SCPRT folks say they are confident the project is inevitable. Peak oil, climate change and other formidable realities ensure it.

“It has to happen because petroleum is not going to continue to provide our transportation,” says Porter. “It’s that simple. Fossil fuels can’t do it. The earth won’t be habitable if we keep burning coal and petroleum.”

Searle agrees, adding that a PRT transit system is imperative on a local level, as well. “Can existing growth handle the traffic that is in Santa Cruz? Even with buses and whatever other kind of mass transit, the answer is no,” he says. “We simply can’t do it. Some kind of alternative, off-road transportation is required.”

“If we are one of the first cities in the country to do this, people are going to come here to see it. It’ll create a kind of tourism we don’t have. Engineers, city planners, [and] politicians will come here to see what this thing is like—they’ll spend good tourist dollars in what I call ‘engineering tourism.’” —Ed Porter on PRT

cover3Is PRT Right for Santa Cruz?

Not surprisingly for Santa Cruz, many locals support alternative transportation methods and believe a form of widely used alternative transit is imminent; however, what that form of transit will be is not so easily agreed upon. Groups have sprung up around town advocating human-powered transportation (like People Power, the bicycle advocacy group), headway on a rail trail (like Friends of the Rail Trail), and other possible ways of shifting transportation methods from cars to sustainable means.

Rick Longinotti is the spokesperson for the Campaign for Sensible Transportation and is also a part of the group Transition Santa Cruz, a large local organization bent on making the town self-reliant as it segues into a future blighted by climate change and scarce energy supply. He says the group “is advocating land use decisions that reduce our dependency on the automobile,” but that they have not discussed the potential of PRT. Although they do not dismiss the idea, they foresee the construction of the railway as Santa Cruz’s most tangible, feasible option.

“Acquiring the rail line is really key, because in a high-cost energy future, the kind of longer distance transportation is going to be done collectively, not in your personal automobile,” say Longinotti. “The rail line is crucial—that’ll be our central means of transportation.” Much like the PRT proposes, the rail line project would include integration of the bus lines, as to make the system accessible to people around the county. Longinotti hopes to see the city move forward on the railway within the next year, before state funding expires.

Irregardless of which is pursued, bringing a rail line or a PRT system to Santa Cruz elicits the same main criticism: a town the size of Santa Cruz does not have the proper population density to run a form of mass transit. Longinotti says that if the rail trail were constructed, growth would cluster around the line and eventually create the appropriate density—all a part of Transition SC’s vision of better land-use decisions leading to a decrease in automobile use.

As for Searle and Porter, they also understand that Santa Cruz’s permanent population does not justify running their silver bullet. But, even though Santa Cruz only clocks in at about 55,000 people, Searle says the need to transport 20,000 Slugs and faculty from UCSC to town is enough to justify running a PRT. He points to Morgantown, which is also a college town and has seen great success with its system. He is confident that making it easier for students to go downtown will boost the local economy.

cover_podcarmap2

 

Porter adds that PRT would help address the seasonal influx of tourists, and therefore solve any Santa Cruzan’s worst fear: tourist-induced traffic.

“Even though Santa Cruz has a population of [more than] 50,000 people, it has an average population that includes the university crowd and three million beach visitors a year,” says Porter. “So we have a transportation problem of a city three times our size. That’s what’s different about Santa Cruz: we do have the density and the ridership need to justify this even though our permanent population is less.”

Although the proposed route does not include it now, Porter says that, eventually, there would be a station at the juncture of Highways 1 and 9 where visitors could park, leave their cars, and hop into a podcar. Even without that station, the current proposal allows for tourists to leave their cars at their hotels or come using alternative transportation—the Highway 17 express or if the rail trail becomes a reality, for example- and use PRT to get around during their stay. PRT advocates anticipate this increasing tourism: not only would there be less traffic congestion and more space for more visitors, but the PRT would attract a certain kind of tourist that the town doesn’t already.

“If we are one of the first cities in the country to do this, people are going to come here to see it,” says Porter. “It’ll create a kind of tourism we don’t have. Engineers, city planners, [and] politicians will come here to see what this thing is like – they’ll spend good tourist dollars in what I call ‘engineering tourism.’”

He adds that visitors using PRT to get to the beach will be more likely to find themselves downtown, where they will also spend “good tourist dollars.” The potential for job creation also works in the economy’s favor, as it is possible that the entire system –cars, tracks, computers, technology—could be manufactured here in Santa Cruz.

“If this is in place, you can reasonably expect a 25 percent improvement in the commerce of downtown, the restaurant industry, the lodging industry, etc,” Porter says. “It’s not unreasonable to say, if PRT were here and working the way we say, that improvement to our economy would be tangible.”

In addition to absolving traffic woes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulating the local economy, advocates of PRT boast of a smaller, but inviting, incentive: it would deter drunk driving. The system would run 24 hours, and could serve as a safe and easy way for people to get home from the bars.

“If we are one of the first cities in the country to do this, people are going to come here to see it. It’ll create a kind of tourism we don’t have. Engineers, city planners, [and] politicians will come here to see what this thing is like—they’ll spend good tourist dollars in what I call ‘engineering tourism.’” —Ed Porter on PRT

Looking to San Jose

Although cities around the world are discussing PRT, one of Santa Cruz’s neighboring cities is actually implementing it. According to Henry Servin, an engineer with the City of San Jose’s Transportation Department and rail program liason manager, San Jose has the funding to begin stage one of their PRT project and hopes to have the initial segment of the line running by 2014. The route would snake through the San Jose International Airport and connect with the city’s light rail and Caltrain stations, and eventually the Bart.

cover04“We’re very famous in Silicon Valley for being technology leaders,” says Servin. “San Jose considers itself the heart of Silicon Valley and it promotes this culture of innovation. We feel that exploring this Personal Rapid Transit is well within that sense of innovation we are seeking and the technology is at the appropriate point to look at how to use it.”

His colleague Laura Stuchinsky, City of San Jose sustainability officer, hopes that San Jose will inspire surrounding areas like Santa Cruz to move forth with the new transportation technology.

“If we can demonstrate it, it will provide valuable info for cities that have contemplated it. They really could realize the vision of this technology. We think there is tremendous potential, not just for San Jose, but for the region and the country,” she says.

Santa Cruz PRT, Inc. is hopeful that Santa Cruz can piggyback on the San Jose PRT movement. “We’re delighted about San Jose doing it,” says Searle. “They’re going to get all the information about permits, because nobody knows what permits you need, or who is going to have to issue the permits. They’ll hassle all that stuff out.”

But although the City of Santa Cruz is “definitely watching what San Jose is doing,” according to Director of Public Works Mark Dettle, he says that PRT is not on the table for discussion. “Based on the financial situation, we’ve suspended the work on the PRT.”

Although, as per the 2008 settlement agreement between UCSC and the city, $50,000 was pooled from both parties to study a new public transportation system that is “off-street.” A small working group comprised of UCSC, city and The Coalition to Limit University Expansion (CLUE) representatives has been formed to discuss eventual options, but due to the dire financial state both entities find themselves in, no real planning is possible. As for the city’s progress with PRT, Assistant Public Works Director Christopher Schneiter put it more bluntly in an e-mail to GT: “Due to budget constraints and other priority funded projects, I will not be working on this concept for the foreseeable future.”

“If we are one of the first cities in the country to do this, people are going to come here to see it. It’ll create a kind of tourism we don’t have. Engineers, city planners, [and] politicians will come here to see what this thing is like—they’ll spend good tourist dollars in what I call ‘engineering tourism.’” —Ed Porter on PRT

cover05Before the severity of the budget deficit was realized, and, as Schneiter wrote of himself, city leaders became “very busy with a million other things,” PRT was indeed being explored. According to Porter, City Council never failed to pass an action Santa Cruz PRT, Inc. presented to them, and on October 5, 2008, the Public Works Department released a solicitation for Request for Qualifications from interested development companies. They received over a dozen responses, but have not yet reviewed them. Although it has sunk low on the city’s list of priorities, Porter and Searle remain optimistic.

“The stimulus [for city leaders] will be when they understand what is happening in San Jose,” says Porter. In the meantime, Santa Cruz PRT, Inc. plans to publicly support the effort in San Jose and educate the Santa Cruz public on the prospect – for, according to Searle, gaining public acceptance will be the true key to seeing PRT realized.

“It’s ours for the taking as soon as we want to make a conscious decision that we want to do it,” he says. “The central thing for Santa Cruz is public acceptance. And that is where it may take awhile – we are a very hesitant town, even though we like to think we are very progressive. We are slow to do new things.

Still, while some embrace the idea and many others dismiss it as futuristic fantasy, Searle is confident that Santa Cruz PRT, Inc.’s efforts are not in vain.

“Are we dreamers? No, we don’t think we are. All of the technology is there, the knowledge is all there. It’s just a matter of applying them. It will happen.”
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