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Personal Rapid Transit
Winona leaders want to build a $25 million test lab to study Personal Rapid Transit, a system that shuttles passengers on elevated guideways.

WINONA, Minn. — Local leaders are supporting a $25 million proposal to test a controversial transportation system in Winona.

Personal Rapid Transit involves a futuristic network of guideways that uses small, pod-like vehicles to shuttle passengers directly to their destinations.

Critics disparage the technology as unproven and note decades of failed attempts to make it work. But PRT has the support of city leaders, and the system is drawing interest from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which this week created a new position to oversee the technology. MnDOT may back construction of a PRT test lab in Winona or elsewhere, an agency spokesman said.

City officials want to build a PRT test lab at Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical. The lab would test PRT and showcase it to clients, and it could become an economic engine for the area if it proves the technology effective, city leaders say.

“From our perspective, this is all about jobs,” City Manager Eric Sorensen said.

The first phase would include a one-mile guideway at Southeast Tech with about 20 pods. The project could grow to $200 million and eventually link Southeast Tech with other hubs in the community.

Sorensen and Winona Mayor Jerry Miller have held talks with Taxi 2000, a Fridley, Minn., firm, about overseeing the project. Sorensen envisions it being paid for by a mix of state and federal funds and private investments — with no local tax dollars involved.

City Hall has marshaled support from leaders at Southeast Tech and Winona State University who say the PRT lab would have instructional value for their students. And local businesses say it could give Winona industries a shot at developing and building materials for PRT vehicles and guideways.

“It would be a tremendous opportunity for the composites industry” in southeast Minnesota, said Steve Maki, vice president of RTP, a Winona-based global composites manufacturer.

The technology has its share of detractors, however. State legislators considered funding to test PRT in 2004. But the Legislature balked when some lawmakers — many of them advocates for traditional mass transit, like light rail — labeled PRT as pure science fiction. No one has built a functioning PRT system for public use, though one is scheduled for completion next year at London’s Heathrow Airport.

PRT supporters say the technology combines the best elements of automobile travel — personalized vehicles that go nonstop to a destination — with the energy efficiency of mass transit. In the 2004 Minnesota Legislature debate, PRT was supported by political conservatives otherwise skeptical of mass transit, including then-GOP state Sen. Michelle Bachmann, now a U.S. representative.

Recent signs suggest state leaders are revisiting the PRT concept. MnDOT this week named Mukhtar Thakur, the department’s head of technical support, as the new director of Personal Rapid Transit. And the agency organized a PRT symposium last month in Rochester, where Miller pitched Winona’s test site proposal.

The agency is “interested” in being involved with a test lab for PRT, though MnDOT’s role in such a venture hasn’t been defined, the new director said. Thakur has not heard from other Minnesota cities that want to host a PRT lab, but he expects to if the effort gains legislative support.

“I imagine there are other cities in Minnesota that might be interested,” Thakur said. “There is a strong interest I hear from Winona in making this happen.”

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