Futuristic pods pitched as answer to city transit woes

Is Baltimore a fit for high-speed, magnetically levitated, egg-like pods?

Baltimore says it needs a world-class mass-transit system. A California company says it has the answer: high-speed, magnetically levitated, egg-like pods designed to ferry commuters above the rush-hour fray.

Has the city found a match, or does the proposal by skyTran — a NASA research partner — amount to "pod in the sky"?

The company, which is accustomed to skepticism, is making its best pitch to city transportation planners: It's proposing not only to build such a system in the city, but also to consider the area for an assembly plant.

"We're hoping to roll this out in Baltimore as our first American city," skyTran CEO Jerry Sanders said. "I think Baltimore has a lot of reasons that make it an attractive site for our first East Coast assembly facility: obviously the port [and] the low cost of living relative to other cities on the East Coast, and the availability of manpower and womanpower here."

In renderings, the two-person vehicles in skyTran's "personal rapid transit system" look like the flying cars from the old "Jetsons" cartoon. But the vehicles would move — at speeds up to 150 miles per hour — along elevated guideways. Passengers could summon the computer-controlled vehicles on their smartphones.

In that sense, skyTran would be more akin to Uber, the car service linked to a mobile app, than a subway system.

SkyTran bills its product as the next generation of such systems, following others — such as pod-like people movers at London's Heathrow Airport — that are similarly driverless with zero emissions, but have wheels. SkyTran's magnetic levitation vehicles have no wheels, and there is no contact between the pod and the overhead guideway.

Skeptics wonder about the cost.

"I'm not trying to say they're definitely not the way to go," said Paul Lewis, director of policy and finance at the Eno Transportation Foundation, a Washington think tank. "These kinds of monorail technologies have been around for a long time. There is always a group of people that is very excited about them and there are several companies that have been working very hard for decades to try and get to this place. And they've never really taken off."

Lewis said he wondered if price was the reason. But SkyTran says its system can be built more cheaply than light rail — about $10 million per mile.

In June, Gov. Larry Hogan scrapped the long-planned, $2.9 billion Red Line — an east-west light rail route — calling it a "boondoggle." Since then, administration officials have pledged to help make Baltimore's much-maligned bus system run better. The buses in the city are run by the Maryland Transit Administration.

"With the cancellation of the Red Line, some people are obviously disappointed about the transit in the city and, frankly, it's not a great transit system," Lewis said. "A lot of people, when they see that, they say, 'We need to build something completely new.' But oftentimes, the less costly and best way to move forward is to rethink the system that we have. I think the way to start is focusing on what economists call the low-hanging fruit."

But Sanders said it's time for a "revolutionary" approach.

"There's nothing like this out there in any form or configuration," he said.

Sanders was drawn to town recently to by an August advertisement from the city seeking proposals "to develop solutions that address the mass-transit needs" of Baltimore.

"I just wanted to make sure that we look for transportation alternatives — that we look at what available technology is out there," said William Johnson, the city's transportation director. "There's always technology that — when applied correctly — may help us."

Johnson called the technology behind skyTran "very exciting."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has set a goal of adding 10,000 families to the city over the next 10 years.

"We want to leverage mass transportation to grow our population and business communities," the city said in its solicitation. "The City is interested in technology that maintains environmental quality standards, and that will be user friendly in terms of neighborhood integration and aesthetics."

Sanders, a former New York taxi driver, said he shares the city's goal of getting more people out of their cars.

"It's mind-boggling. People refuse to car-share," he said. "They refuse to use the high-occupancy vehicle lane. And the reason for that is that people like their comfort. They like their privacy.

"Rather than try and force people to change their behavior, we decided to force the transportation system to change its behavior to accommodate people."

He said skyTran would accomplish that with two-person vehicles.

The company said it is "far too premature" to speculate on what the financial arrangement with the city would be.

Over the next 30 to 45 days, Johnson said, the city will review "four or five responses from different groups" to its mass-transit solicitation.

"There is no obligation to select anyone to do anything" if there is not a good fit, he said. According to the city, the other transportation companies that responded were Taxi 2000, a mass transit company; Bombardier, which makes high-speed trains; and Jacobs/STV, which provides engineering and other transportation consulting services.

Nigel H.M. Wilson, who studies urban transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Baltimore must be diligent in evaluating skyTran's proposal.

"I'd want to do my own analysis of what the alternatives are," he said. "You'd want to look at all the available services and systems and say, 'This is the one that best serves our needs.'

"For many of these technologies, you've got significant infrastructure costs as well as the vehicle technology itself."

SkyTran's technology was created in partnership with NASA's Ames Research Center in California. The technology has applications for space travel as well as urban transit. SkyTran announced an investment last month — it did not disclose how much — from Innovation Endeavors, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt's Silicon Valley investment firm.

SkyTran is building a pilot program for the technology on the corporate campus of Israel Aerospace Industries, with the first phase scheduled for completion in about a month.

Maryland has expressed interest in magnetic levitation technology. In June, Hogan, on a trade mission to Asia, took a trip on a maglev train outside Tokyo that reached a reported 314 mph. The governor called the ride "an incredible experience" and said Maryland would apply for a $28 million federal grant to study a possible Washington-Baltimore line.

Northeast Maglev, an ambitious venture to build a high-speed rail line between Washington and Baltimore, opened a new headquarters last month in downtown Baltimore. The aim is to bring Baltimore and the nation's capital within a 15-minute ride of each other.

As Sanders promotes his brand of maglev, he sounds like someone who has been stuck in traffic too often.

"The target is commuters," he said. "Commuters are what clog our surface roads. That's what's killing us."

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

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