WVU's one-of-a-kind transit system rolls on

For 32 years, the PRT has provided a unique solution to growing pains in Morgantown

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Like the "Energizer Bunny," West Virginia University's PRT is an icon that keeps on going. And going.

PRT stands for Personal Rapid Transit, a one-of-a-kind, computer-run, electric people mover system whose 73 gold-and-blue transit cars have been whisking riders around hilly Morgantown and the school complex since 1975.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
West Virginia University students April Davis, a junior, and Nathan Silcott, a freshman, ride the Personal Rapid Transit system between campuses in Morgantown.
Click photo for larger image.

"There are 130 automated systems worldwide, but only one like this," said Lawrence Fabian of Boston, director of the Advanced Transit Association, which deals with futuristic transit programs. "Its characteristics are unique," including on-demand service that takes riders where they want to go, like pressing the buttons on an elevator except that it's a horizontal trip with five stations instead of five floors.

The PRT is so "personal" that fairly often there's only one passenger aboard an 8,600-pound car, moving at speeds up to 30 mph from Point A to Point C without stopping at Point B.

The former Urban Mass Transportation Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, funded development and construction of the PRT in the 1970s, wanting to test the technology in an environment of changing weather and challenging topography.

Often maligned in its infancy as a goofy, unworkable idea and then plagued by technical and operating maladies in childhood, the people mover overcame the stigmas and problems long ago.

The PRT has racked up 20 million miles and carried 60 million riders over three decades. The safety record is impressive. No one has ever been badly hurt on the vehicles, electrified guideway or stations.

A transportation magazine, "The New Electric Railway Journal," has ranked the system above Disney World's Monorail for overall performance.

"When I came here from Rome 21/2 years ago, I said, 'Whoa. What is this thing?' " said Claudia Bernasconi, assistant professor of landscape architecture.

Not only did the WVU experiment succeed, but the community is relying on the PRT more than ever as growth is mushrooming and overwhelming parking facilities and the capacity of the local road system.

Parking indicates how challenging getting around by private vehicle has become. University police wrote more than 100,000 parking tickets last year.

When the Downtown campus outgrew its space, the PRT was a key factor that enabled WVU to develop the Evansville campus two miles away.

Officials are now talking about expanding the system to accommodate higher university enrollment and local population growth of 1,000 people a year over the next 25 years.

Plans include extending the line to a rapidly developing WVU Research Center and building a passenger station to serve the Sunnyside neighborhood between the two campuses, an area constricted by narrow streets and overrun by students who rent rows of family homes built generations ago.

In addition, a ''feeder line" is being discussed to connect the university and the lone fringe parking lots. The free spaces are next to the WVU Coliseum and other college athletic facilities across Jerry West Boulevard, a cross-at-your-own risk highway, named for the basketball great, that meanders along the Monongahela River.

"Morgantown and the university are growing by leaps and bounds, and there's every expectation that it will continue," said Robert Hendershot, WVU assistant director of public safety and transportation. "In turn, it's our responsibility to get people where they're going."

The PRT knits the two campuses and other facilities together on a fixed guideway, partly elevated and partly at ground level, an unobtrusive 4-mile path that now stretches to the university's medical center and hospital. The dual-track guideway is an engineering feat of junctions, tight turns and grades that top out at a rather steep 10 percent.

The cars run on rubber tires -- standard truck tires, in fact. A network of pipes imbedded in the concrete guideway surface circulates hot water in winter to keep the PRT ride surface free of snow and ice.

The 20-passenger cars carry about 15,000 riders, mostly students, a day when classes are in session -- and twice as many for Mountaineer football games.

That compares with about 25,000 riders a day on the light-rail system operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which covers 25 miles and operates 45 more hours a week than the PRT. Also, the authority's LRV operating cost per ride is about four times higher than on the university-funded PRT.

A transportation charge in their activity fee entitles students to unlimited rides on the PRT. The single-ride cash fare for the public is 50 cents.

The system drew praise this month when the school played host to a small but spirited national seminar focusing on the PRT and other advanced people mover transit technologies. After 30 years, it remains relevant and ahead of its time, attracting transit officials, academics and researchers from around the globe.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County almost got a similarly unique system in the early 1960s, but political opposition and community controversy killed Port Authority attempts to build an automated, rubber-tire Skybus project. Construction had advanced to building a test track in South Park, now demolished, and rebuilding an abandoned Wabash Railroad Tunnel, now a little-used high occupancy vehicle facility.

WVU students complain of occasional breakdowns and delays, overcrowding and rush-hour waits at stations, partly due to enrollment that has grown from 16,000 when the PRT opened to 27,000 today and because of greater reliance on the system.

But overall availability of cars last year was 98.2 percent, impressive considering the age, lack of off-the-shelf replacement parts and other mechanical challenges.

A staff of 49 employees keeps the system functioning. It's receiving significant federal transit funds for capital improvements for the first time, now that Morgantown recently qualified as an "urban area."

"The system is very old," said Bob Roberts, WVU director of public safety and transportation. "It's a constant amazement to me that they keep it running as well as they do."

Many parts that were designed for a 20-year life are still working after 30 years. PRT officials feel they can get another 20 years out of some, including the cars, although major electrical, guideway, station and other retrofits and upgrades are under way or planned as part of a five-year modernization program.

The overhaul is coming just in time. Drivers can take an extra 30 minutes to get in, out or around town, even during nonpeak hours.

"We're at a point in our lives where we need to expand transit and increase bus and PRT service and reliability, and teach people to use them," City Planning Director Chris Fletcher said, noting many WVU students grew up in rural areas where cars and pickup trucks are the sole means of transportation.

Even foot traffic is so heavy that a pedestrian bridge is being built over University Avenue this summer, between Oglebay Hall and the Business and Economics Building at the Downtown campus, to provide safe crossing for an estimated 2,000 students a day and to minimize traffic disruption.

"It's clear that Morgantown is undergoing significant change," Mr. Fabian said. "Its intense traffic problems are partly because of the topography and, like most of the world, the tendency is toward sprawl. There has been little zoning and no land use planning."

The 1970s bold experiment that was a catalyst for WVU and Morgantown growth is now a lifeline for its existence.

Mr. Fabian mused: "Can you imagine what it would be like if the PRT didn't happen?"

Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.


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