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.

May 31, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

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.

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