A monorail in our future?
Last Updated: 18:55 October 30, 2013
LONGMONT - R. Paul Williamson told a crowd gathered Aug. 22 at the Boulder Public Library that a high-speed, magnetic levitation monorail public transportation system between Boulder and Longmont could transport up to 12,000 people per hour if used at full capacity.
The trick will be raising the $250 million needed from private investors to cover the cost of the project - an amount Williamson notes is far less than the cost of commuter rail over the same distance. Investors, after all, want to know the technology is feasible, and the company behind it, Mountain View, California-based SkyTran Inc., has yet to build a hardware reference platform where it could be tested.
Williamson is the chief executive of Sustainable Systems of Colorado and is serving as a consultant for SkyTran as it pursues the project with the Colorado Department of Transportation and other business development organizations in the state. Williamson has a history with SkyTran, having been involved in the early research and development phase of the program.
Williamson told the crowd of about 90 people that the system would be solar and hydrogen powered. The possibilities are tantalizing for those looking for a way to improve their daily commutes. Williamson said the system could be operational within three years if funding came through.
SkyTran has created prototypes of 500-pound, three-passenger pods that float on suspended rails made of aluminum and are powered by a magnetic field generated by electricity.
The Colorado City Connector initially would cover a 15-mile stretch from Longmont to Boulder, traveling along the median of Colorado Highway 119 - provided SkyTran could land right of way from CDOT. The two-way system would begin at the intersection of Colorado 119 and U.S. Highway 287 in Longmont - Ken Pratt Boulevard and South Main Street - and end at the Table Mesa Park and Ride in Boulder, with five additional depots in between. Passengers would ride in three-person pods which, unlike buses or trains, could be ordered on demand via computer or smartphone.
Cost to ride? About 20 to 50 cents per mile depending on how many passengers were traveling in a given pod.
Williamson said the pods will do about 150 miles per hour, although the speed likely would be closer to 60 mph for the short distance between Longmont and Boulder.
A second phase of the track from Longmont to Interstate 25 would cost about $113 million. If successful, future lines could help fill in transportation gaps in Denver or run along I-70 to mountain towns.
Williamson said Colorado 119 was picked for the initial project because it's a busy highway that could use some commuter relief but isn't so busy that the system would be under crushing stress right away.
SkyTran's system would fall under a category of transportation called personal rapid transit, or PRT. Only three PRT systems are operational in the world: one in the United Arab Emirates, one at Heathrow Airport in London and another in South Korea. None of the three uses magnetic levitation.
Peter Muller, president of PRT Consulting in Franktown, is an advocate of PRT versus other forms of public transportation. The independence of it is one major attraction for riders, he said. Also, given that arrival of the Regional Transportation District's planned FasTracks train to Boulder and Longmont likely is delayed until the 2040s, the cheaper-to-build SkyTran system is an attractive option.
But Muller, who attended Williamson's information meeting, also believes SkyTran has plenty of wrinkles to figure out before it could be successful with its system. For one thing, there's the aspect of how riders will get from the PRT depots to their final destinations, also known as traversing "the final mile." Magnetic levitation, Muller said, also is largely unproven.
"I'm not saying it's not feasible," Muller said. "I'm just saying it's not proven. I think it's a great idea, a great project. I just think it's still got quite a lot of homework to do."
Williamson said SkyTran has received much of its research funding to date from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The company also has received research assistance from NASA, largely in the form of the use of facilities and personnel.
While the CDOT controls most of the right-of-way access that would be needed between Boulder and Longmont, Williamson said he's reaching out to the cities and residents to gain community buy-in.
"We need to have the communities involved and have them informed and have their input," Williamson said.
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