‘Rocket ship' transit system proposed in Missoula

2009-03-18T00:00:00Z ‘Rocket ship' transit system proposed in MissoulaBy KEILA SZPALLER of the Missoulian missoulian.com
March 18, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Personal "rocket ships" would take 15 minutes to get from Hamilton to Missoula.

That's the estimate offered by Paul Williamson, who wants $25 million in federal stimulus dollars to launch a pilot project in Missoula for the transit system called "SkyTran."

Williamson, director of the University of Montana Alternative Energy Technologies program, has been working with a California-based company called Unimodal on the project he said could put the Garden City on the map for being on the cutting edge of transportation technology.

"We have a window of opportunity here that no other community in the United States has," Williamson said Tuesday. "I'm hoping we can take advantage of it."

The "personal rapid transit" carts look like miniature spaceships and are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. They carry two people each, and they hang from a track that looks kind of like a monorail. The SkyTran uses magnetic force, though, so there's no contact between the cart and the track, called a "guideway." Stations are set up every quarter-mile.

Speeds? About 45 mph in town and up to 150 mph between cities. Departure times? Whenever a rider hops aboard a "magnetic levitation vehicle." Stops and arrivals? Riders stop only at their destinations.

It's public transit made personal. That's what Unimodal chief executive officer Christopher Perkins said has the potential to attract riders and possibly dent transit competitors hauling herds of people through one stop at a time.

"It's how we deliver the service to the traveling public that's the key," Perkins said.

Missoula's Transportation Policy and Coordinating Committee heard the pitch Tuesday. After the meeting, TPCC member Steve Earle said committee members generally wanted more information about how the project will be funded. If the TPCC adds the project to its official list of priorities, SkyTran becomes eligible for federal funding.

"From a public transportation standpoint, it's a very interesting project and it has some merit in that it's sustainable transportation in the future," said Earle, Mountain Line general manager. "But it's just not clear, first of all, where this initial block of money would come from, and second of all, who would pay the ongoing operation expenses."

The U.S. Department of Transportation put $1 million into research for the project, Perkins said. Williamson said the grantees are three years into the four-year grant and are ready to launch a pilot project in Missoula. He said the federal stimulus bill set aside some $8 billion for magnetic levitation proposals and most money is slated for a line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

"We're hoping we can get some crumbs from that funding," said Williamson, also a hydrogen proponent.

He said SkyTran isn't after the stimulus transportation dollars earmarked for Montana. Perkins said the SkyTran would cost riders some 20 cents to 35 cents a mile and the operation is expected to pay for itself after research and set up.

It isn't clear where such a track would be set up but options include the airport, industrial park and Bonner. Perkins said the international interest in personal rapid transit is high and he likens the development of SkyTran to the flight at Kitty Hawk a century ago.

"I think that the opportunity here is historic," he said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262 or at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com.

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