Richard Garriott has spent a lifetime doing the unexpected.
Writing and selling video games while still a teenager. Building a Renaissance village and Globe Theatre replica on Lake Austin. Acting as cornerman in a championship boxing match. Conducting a marriage ceremony in zero gravity. Hitching a ride on a Russian spacecraft.
So when Garriott, 54, says he plans to self-finance and build a beyond-the-cutting-edge transit system in and around the University of Texas, the seemingly far-fetched idea at least merits a listen. And, in fact, city and university leaders are meeting with the video game entrepreneur as he once again shops around his $106 million “personal rapid transit” proposal.
However, at this point listening is mostly what is occurring. Agreeing and participating are a whole other matter.
“We’re at a place with Austin traffic now where we need to think differently and outside the box,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who nonetheless confessed to skepticism about the Garriott venture. “Let’s just consider stuff.”
The particular stuff Garriott has in mind is a 7.2-mile web of elevated tramways, running alongside city streets from West Campus, in and around the University of Texas, and then on to the university facilities just east of Interstate 35. Running on those paths would be battery-powered, self-driving pod cars with room for up to six people, each vehicle directed by those passengers to a particular destination on the circuit.
Garriott and ULTra, a British vendor of the pod systems, foresee something like 180 of the futuristic vehicles tooling around that concrete lattice, with only a few seconds between each computer- and sensor-controlled car zipping to one of roughly 20 stations on the route. They project annual operating costs of $3.6 million.
To Garriott, such a system would combine the best features of a private automobile — privacy and the ability to depart when you want and choose your destination — with the speed of a rail line (the pods would not run on tracks). He envisions passengers sailing along above the congested traffic below. Critics say instead it has rail’s worst aspects — an inflexible route and fixed destinations — and an automobile’s modest capacity.
Garriott financed a 110-page ULTra study of the proposal in 2010 — at a cost of “six figures,” he said — and took it to many of the same community leaders at that time.
“When I told them about it, they said, ‘What’s not to like?’” Garriott said — especially the idea of there being no taxpayer dollars involved. “Except when it came time to sign on the dotted line, that’s when I came up against light rail. ‘If I supported it right now publicly, it would be the death knell of light rail, which is already having a tough time,’ they said. ‘Lie fallow for a while.’”
In the wake of the November 2014 thrashing of the light rail proposal at the polls, Garriott sees the way clear for his alternative to begin what would be a laborious process of getting city, Capital Metro and UT buy-in, and acquiring easements for the route.
Pat Clubb, UT vice president of university operations, last week expressed what would have to be considered guarded interest.
“We have about 14,000 parking spaces on campus, and at any given time we can have 77,000 people on campus,” Clubb said. “So we are constantly trying to find economical and effective solutions for getting around the campus. It’s getting too big for people to walk across it from one end to another. So we’re always open to give a hearing to creative solutions.
“But there’s clearly some challenges to something like this. It’s new. There’s not any urban area that’s successfully put one in.”
Nothing quite like it
Currently, depending on how loosely one defines the term, five personal rapid transit systems are operating worldwide: a parking lot connector at London’s Heathrow Airport, a connection between two campuses of West Virginia University (although that 40-year-old system has much larger vehicles that render it much closer to a bus system) and lines in the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and South Korea.
None of them are a close analogue for Garriott’s proposed lattice of lines, instead tending to be a single linear route from point A to point B. Four of the five are much shorter than his plan, less than 3 miles long. None were fully privately financed, as Garriott suggests in this case, and it is impossible to gauge their financial viability, or even get reliable cost and ridership statistics on some of them. Four of the five lines are either free to board or have low fares.
Garriott, whose 2010 study is silent on potential ridership and fares, points to what he says is the comparatively low cost of constructing a system: $15 million a mile. (Austin’s failed light rail proposal last year would have cost about $147 million a mile.) Garriott says that aside from fares, parking garages on the perimeter of the system could be a revenue source.
“We need the OK from the city and the university, then it is up to us to line up the money,” Garriott said. “And by the way, we think we already have. We feel very comfortable about the financial aspects.”
He declined to furnish further details on the business plan.
The West Virginia experiment
Personal rapid transit, as a concept, has been around for more than 50 years. Automated people movers of the sort seen in many large airports are a close cousin, but this type of transit has struggled to gain acceptance in the industry. The Internet is littered with tales of systems that were promoted, often by government and sometimes through years of design, and then collapsed before dirt could be turned.
“It’s never really taken off in a commercial application,” said Lyndon Henry, a longtime light rail proponent and former planner at Capital Metro. “Most of the proposals have evaporated, and it’s mainly because they’ve come up against the expensive reality of putting a transit system in an urban environment.”
And personal rapid transit promoters tend to downplay the potential impact of such a system on the streetscape: tree removal, vehicles bustling past second-story windows, space needed for stations, pillars in the sidewalk every so often. West Campus, for example, has narrow streets and often little space between the curb and apartment buildings.
The West Virginia system, despite its age and design differences (particularly larger cars that seat up to 18 as well as control and propulsion systems a generation or more old), offers the most encouragement that something resembling Garriott’s proposal could be useful at the university.
The 8.7-mile line, about two-thirds of it elevated, runs between that university campus and a satellite campus near downtown Morgantown. It has five stations and, as Garriott suggests in this case, each particular driverless vehicle runs only to one destination, bypassing other stations. And with free fares for students and university staff, and a 50-cent one-way charge for everyone else, it averages 15,000 boardings a day during the school year.
“If we didn’t have the PRT, our student body would have to be cut drastically,” said Arlie Forman, the university’s associate director of transportation/parking.
Forman was startled to hear that Garriott’s proposal for Austin would have such small vehicles.
“I’d steer clear of that,” he said. “You’d be better served to have a larger vehicle.”
The West Virginia system, which costs about $5 million a year to operate, was financed primarily by the federal government as an experiment in what was then new technology. Its construction cost was about the $15 million a mile that Garriott suggests, but in the 1970s.
In 2015 dollars, that would be about $65 million a mile.