Town open to plan for ‘pod’ transit

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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Bill James hopes the peninsula town of Hull will be his Kitty Hawk — his place to show that the JPods “personal transportation system’’ he developed really works, just as the Wright Brothers showed their flying machine could get off the ground.

James, president of Minnesota-based JPods Inc., has been trying for years to launch the product that he describes as an “on-demand, ultra-light robotic railroad’’ suspended from overhead rails. Think a mini-Disney monorail, or ski gondolas running parallel to the ground.

The system is designed to run on electricity generated by solar panels, and James contends it’s both extremely efficient and easy to maintain.

Hull environmentalist Judeth Van Hamm discovered the product online and called James last year to suggest he bring JPods to Hull. He spoke with selectmen last spring and demonstrated a sample vehicle in the fall.

Last week, selectmen agreed to endorse the idea.

“The concept is intriguing,’’ said selectmen chairman Domenico Sestito. “I’m a big supporter of renewable energy. We have the windmills, and I’ve been pursuing a renewable energy institute in town.’’

JPods “is definitely visionary, definitely out of the box, and we want to keep an open mind,’’ he said. “But what does it really mean? Is it ugly? Who knows? It will be interesting to see if it gets to that point.’’

Selectman John Brannan voted against endorsing the JPods idea, saying that, as a businessman, “sometimes things sound right, sometimes not, and this one just didn’t strike the chords I was looking for.’’ He said the project seemed better suited to a community with more population density year-round.

“And there wasn’t enough information about the marketing plan, the financing plan, the business plan. There wasn’t enough information to make a legitimate business call,’’ he said. “Plus, it’s no secret that many communities are having serious financial issues. We’re not overloaded with excess manpower, and I didn’t think it would be a good use of manpower to spend time on it.’’

Selectmen said they plan to contact their counterparts in Hingham to see whether they’re interested in the idea. But the Hull board indicated they expect James — not the town — to pursue financing and necessary approvals, especially since the town has no direct jurisdiction in the matter.

“The course we’re taking is casual interest,’’ Hingham selectwoman Laura Burns said of the proposal. “It’s a bit futuristic for Hingham, but we’ll see.’’

James originally proposed running the JPods about a mile, from Steamboat Wharf across to Nantasket Beach and up to the Clarion Hotel, for a two-year trial.

Hull selectmen suggested it would be more worthwhile to run the system between Hull and the nearest commuter rail station at the Hingham line.

Either way, James would need approval from both private landowners and the state to build the system. And he’s still working on getting financing. He estimates it would cost $9 million to build the mile-long stretch on the beach and about double that for the route the selectmen liked.

Personal rapid transit has its detractors, including Vukan Vuchic, a recently retired professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He said the system is too small for cities where there is substantial demand and too large for suburbs where ridership would be too small to pay for the investment.

“The idea is not realistic at all,’’ Vuchic said. “They go to politicians with this very nice story, but it’s much more complicated in theory than it looks.’’

James isn’t the only one trying to build a personal transportation system.

The city of Winona, Minn., for example, is working with another Minnesota company to find the money to build a demonstration project that would connect a university, hospital, and retail center.

“Efficient, sophisticated, and green, Personal Rapid Transit is the future of public transportation, and it is only a matter of finding model communities in which to study PRT’s operations before it can be successfully launched nationwide and worldwide,’’ the city said in its unsuccessful application for a $25 million federal grant.

Ithaca, N.Y., also is exploring the possibility of a personal rapid transit system.

A feasibility study done for Ithaca reported that some of the key ideas behind personal transit transportation date back more than a century, but the first system was sketched by a New York planner in 1953.

In 1975, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed the first working system in Morgantown, W. Va., where it is still running between the campuses of West Virginia University.

The federal government backed away from the idea in the 1980s, according to the Ithaca report, and interest has only been rekindled recently with new advances in the technology.

Most recently, Heathrow Airport in London built a personal transit system, and Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates is building an underground one. A Swedish company has permission to build a system in South Korea, as well.

James said his company came close to building at the Mall of America in Minnesota — the deal fell through after five years of negotiations — and is working with a city in China.

“The problem is getting permission to build,’’ he said. “Governments don’t innovate. People do. But we have to get permission to innovate from government.’’

Van Hamm, who thinks James’s proposal has massive potential to improve air quality and traffic congestion, said she hopes something can happen in Hull soon.

“The possibility of making this happen is time-sensitive. If Bill James finds another location and somebody else moves forward, that’s where the investors will go,’’ she said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at