It's called personal rapid transit (PRT), a monorail-based system of podlike, three-seat cars that whisk passengers from point A to point B -- or point D, or point Q. Unlike trains or trolleys, PRT cars can stop in stations separated from the main track, allowing passengers to bypass stops they don't need.
Touting PRT locally is the Sky Loop Committee, an arm of Forward Quest, a Northern Kentucky economic development and planning group.
Sky Loop Committee Chair Chip Tappan, a local developer, made the case for PRT with other committee members at a presentation in Covington's RiverCenter complex Aug. 16.
The technology has been under development since the 1950s, but recent improvements in computer power and software have made the idea much more feasible now, according to Tappan. Two years ago several companies pitched designs for an elevated rail-transport system to Forward Quest.
The volunteer-staffed Sky Loop Committee hopes to build a 15-mile, 825-car system connecting both sides of the Ohio River at a cost of $154 million. Annual maintenance would cost an estimated $6.7 million.
Using those numbers, Tappan says PRT would be much cheaper to build and run than streetcars or buses. And unlike buses and streetcars, PRT wouldn't be slowed by traffic.
Furthermore, PRT would turn a profit if 20,000 of the 100,000 commuters who travel to downtown Cincinnati, Newport, and Covington bought $50 monthly PRT cards, good for unlimited travel on the system. A certain number of tourists and area residents would also be likely to ride the system.
At the RiverCenter presentation, Sky Loop backers spoke a lot about how inexpensive PRT would be in comparison to street-level transportation. PRT would save money because it needs less street space, and because the committee expects property owners to pay for stations in downtown office buildings.
But considering the technology is untested and is at least a few years away from implementation, isn't it too early to talk about how inexpensive PRT would be?
"You could say it's premature, but it's no more premature than any other business plan," says Bob Brodbeck, the Sky Loop Committees' expert on the PRT technology.
Obviously, Brodbeck says, cost estimates will be refined as the technology is field-tested.
"You could certainly make that case," Tappan says. "I wouldn't focus on cost except in a very general way."
But Tappan says he is pretty sure the cost wouldn't vary tremendously.
Right now the PRT effort is active on two fronts.
The Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) is conducting a loop study to determine which transportation mode should be used to circulate people around downtown Cincinnati, Covington and Newport. The system should work in conjunction with the proposed light-rail system connecting Covington and Blue Ash. In addition to PRT, OKI is considering streetcars and buses.
The Sky Loop Committee also hopes to collaborate with an unnamed corporation to build a demonstration PRT station and track at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Right now the anonymous company is studying six cities, including Cincinnati, to see if there is any interest. To lure the company, the Sky Loop Committee needs to find investors willing to put up about $5 million to help build the $10 million test line. Later, the line could be expanded -- to reach airport parking lots, for example, Brodbeck says.
If everything goes well, Tappan says, 50 percent of the PRT proposal's $154 million funding could come from federal transportation grants, with the rest coming from state and local matches.
The Sky Loop Committee will make another presentation from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, in the tower room of the downtown branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, 800 Vine St.