Kicking the tires of a people mover Traffic: Baltimore is studying whether a driverless electric people mover will alleviate the city's traffic congestion. The city says it would cost $210 million.


Across the country, as urban areas run out of parking spaces and their downtowns become gridlocked, a handful of cities are turning to driverless, electric cars on elevated tracks that snake between skyscrapers delivering workers to their jobs, tourists to hot spots and conventioneers to hotels.

Now, Baltimore is eyeing the possibility of building such a "people mover."

It's no wonder. Traffic is considered one of the city's greatest obstacles to economic expansion. The most recent study shows the downtown core is short 3,600 parking spaces. And with three new downtown hotels proposed, a $151 million expansion to the convention center recently completed and a stated goal of boosting annual visitors from 7 million to 7.4 million by the end of the year, the problem will greatly increase.

"If we're successful in getting more businesses and tourists, those numbers would go up," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's economic agency. "Parking is definitely a problem."

The city already is proposing $75 million in revenue bonds for more garages.

"But continued improvement to the transportation we offer in Baltimore is absolutely critical to the successful economic development of Baltimore," Brodie said.

And one solution, the city believes, may lie with people movers.

Worldwide, there are 84 automated people movers, carrying 2.5 million people a day, according to a recent industry report. The technology has operated for years in theme parks and airports with considerable success, and is expected to spread to health care and hospital settings soon.

Other cities considering people movers include Irvine, Calif; Toledo and Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

"It was a pretty dry field for a long time," said Lawrence J. Fabian, a Boston strategist who publishes a bimonthly newsletter on people movers. "Now there seems to be considerable interest in it."

But the results have been mixed.

One enormous obstacle to widespread use of people movers is cost. It costs about $70 million a mile -- including cars that easily cost $1 million a piece, and the accompanying high technology control rooms to make the system work.

The cost of the proposed Baltimore system is estimated at $210 million.

But officials in some of the cities with people movers say the benefit of such systems extends far beyond simply moving people from one point to another. Done well, people movers have the potential to boost land values, spur development, promote tourism and convention business and position a city as a progressive place to live and work, they say.

"I hope you guys do it because it will be great for the city," said Patti Allen, executive director of Miami's Downtown Development Authority. "It's going to infuse capital into your city. The hotels are going to love it. It's going to enhance the city's already existing incredible assets. It's going to take it to another level."

On the flip side, people movers can be a disaster. Earlier this month, Tampa announced plans to halt operation of its 13-year-old people mover, which links downtown with Harbour Island a half-mile away. City officials cited high operating costs and low ridership as the reasons for scrapping the project.

The proposal for Baltimore calls for the people mover to travel about three miles between Camden Yards and Canton, passing through Little Italy and linking attractions along the way -- at an elevation of about 15 feet.

Possible spurs and extensions include: Charles Center, Key Highway, and the Ravens Stadium.

The city may spend more than $2 million for studies before making a decision on whether to pursue the project.

"If I had $210 million, I would certainly do this," said George Balog, director of Baltimore's Department of Public Works. "But the people mover is almost symbolic to me. What's the best way and most economical way to move people?"

Balog recognizes that coming up with the $210 million -- nearly the cost of the new Ravens stadium -- won't be easy.

"I'm not overly optimistic that we're going to get a people mover," Balog said. "I'm hopeful. But we've got to have some vision for moving people."

Already, Baltimore's proposed project has some opposition.

"We feel the whole discussion has moved too fast," said Jamie Kendrick, transportation coordinator with the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "We don't think the city has made a strong case for the need for a people mover."

There are many factors to consider when thinking about putting a people mover into a well-established downtown.

"People movers are high price tag and high profile, not easy to reconcile in a built up city," said BDC's Brodie. "I think of all the people we sold sites to, who believed they'd always have this unobstructed view of the harbor. I have questions, and I've heard questions from others."

People movers, like most public transportation, are not moneymakers. Generally, public transportation fares cover between 30 and 50 percent of operation.

The loop that opened in downtown Miami in 1986 cost $153 million, and its cars now cost $1.3 million apiece. The Skyway, in Jacksonville is costing $185 million.

Operating costs and maintenance for such systems are high.

Detroit, for example, pays about $8 million a year to subsidize the city's 2.9-mile loop. In Tampa, operating costs are $700,000 to $800,000 a year.

Tampa's experience is unique because it illustrates several mistakes. The people mover was built too early -- before the convention center and the arena were built, and with no provisions to make stops there.

Consequently, it took people to only one place -- to a festival marketplace located on Harbor Island. Once that was converted to office space, though, ridership plummeted from about 350,000 people a year to 90,000, said Elton Smith, transportation manager for the city.

Despite Tampa's bad experience, Mayor Dick Greco encourages Baltimore to pursue a people mover. "It will be different for Baltimore," he said. "You're going to start from scratch and build an entire system. The problem is we didn't connect it to the convention center. If you're bringing in $20,000 a year and spending $600,000, those economics don't work."

Others warn against building a system piecemeal. They say it is essential that a people mover initially link a significant number of areas in a city.

In Jacksonville, the Skyway now suffers from an image problem because snags in financing delayed its completion.

The project was first proposed in the 70s. The first 0.7-mile was completed in the 1980s. At one point, the system was shut down for a year, when the city was forced to change vendors because additions to the existing system were too expensive. Officials hope to have all 2.5 miles, and their eight stations, done by the end of next year.

"I think the community has gotten very wary of this Skyway that's being built for the past 25 years," said Marci Larson, a spokeswoman for Jacksonville Transportation Authority. "They want to know where it is."

These days, ridership is about 1,500 people a day -- nowhere near the 19,000-passengers-a-day projected.

In sharp contrast, Miami's Metromover is considered a model of success.

The system, carries about 13,000 people a day, on 4.1 miles of track that loops the downtown and travels out in two north-south spurs that extend from the central district.

"Everywhere there's a train station, the land has tripled in real estate value," according to Manny Palmeiro, marketing manager for Miami Metro Dade Transit.

The Metromover system is linked to light rail, just as the proposed east-west people mover for Baltimore would be. Miami officials underscore the value of the mover as a marketing tool, and they seem to have examples to back up their enthusiasm.

A few years ago, when Miami won the opportunity to be the host for the Summit of the Americas, one of the reasons was because the hotels could be marketed together in a package of more than 4,000 hotel rooms since they all were accessible by Metromover, said Allen, with the city's Downtown Development Authority.

"If you're able to link the Inner Harbor, the hotels and Johns Hopkins, the marketing value is going to far outweigh the debt service," Allen said about the prospects in Baltimore. "You can market anything."

In a 1995 estimate, the most current available, the economic impact of the Metromover was more than $377 million to Miami.

"These are numbers to look at," she said. "It's a given that your land is worth more if you're on the people mover. It's like being on the waterfront."

Allen also uses the people mover to showcase the city.

Jacksonville officials also are convinced that their Skyway is playing a role in the configuration of downtown development. Their challenge has been that St. John's River splits the downtown in half, allowing both sides to grow independently. A crossover link to the Skyway -- considered a key component in the city's growth -- is scheduled for completion Oct. 21.

"When we announced we were going across the river, they reopened a hotel that had been closed, built another and we have another in the works," said C. Charles Pineda, Skyway Project manager. "Was the Skyway the only reason? No. Was it a factor? Absolutely. You don't go from having a closed hotel to doubling your hotel space for no reason. It's not like we've got a new tourist business." Jacksonville -- which along with Amelia Island and St. Augustine, receives 4 million visitors a year -- is a strong regional attraction because of its beaches and golf courses.

But Jacksonville is not nearly the player that Baltimore is for meetings and conventions, said Kathleen M. Ratcliffe, president of the Jacksonville Convention and Visitors Bureau and formerly a vice president at the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"Baltimore has done a very good job of pulling all the hotels and attractions and businesses into one district that makes it easy for visitors to find all the things there are to do," she said. "They're doing an excellent job of making it a walking city. But in the heat of the summer, wouldn't it be nice to get into an air-conditioned car to ride the six blocks or so to get to the next attraction?."

She plans to market Jacksonville's Skyway to meeting planners by telling them about the savings in not having to spend $40,000 to $100,000 to shuttle people around the city for a typical four-day convention.

For instance in Baltimore, running a continuous loop of shuttle service for a four-day convention of 5,000 delegates using eight or 10 hotels, can cost $60,000, Ratcliffe said.

"It's a lot of money, and it's a line item in a meeting planner's budget," she said. "So, if a city can reduce that line item, that's an incentive for a meeting planner to select that city."

Other advantages to people movers are the flexibility they offer over other forms of transportation. Buses have to run whether there are people at the stops or not. With people movers, though, a push of a button can adjust service -- adding or subtracting cars as needed, based on how many passengers are seen by cameras on platforms at various stops, said William P. Showalter, manager of Skyway operations in Jacksonville.

People movers also may enable cities to eliminate buses from downtown areas, moving them to the suburbs and easing

pollution problems, he said.

Whatever the ultimate transportation plan for Baltimore, Balog hopes to have it charted within a year. It would then take at least two more years to turn the proposal into reality, he estimated -- perhaps as long as five, if the plan calls for a people mover with complex technology.

"We want to take into consideration what the people want, how much money we have," Balog said. "I'm sensitive to the public. We have a concept. We want to take a look at it."

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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