Politics & Government

Take a rapid transit pod from WSU to Old Town? Maybe, someday

A personal rapid transit system operates in and around the campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. The Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan features a PRT system that would connect Wichita State University and Old Town.
A personal rapid transit system operates in and around the campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. The Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan features a PRT system that would connect Wichita State University and Old Town. West Virginia University Transportation and Parking

It’s not flying cars. But sometime in the future, folks in Wichita could ride small pods on a personal rapid transit system from Wichita State University to downtown.

The project is still a long way off, if it happens at all. Officials have not yet applied for the federal grants that would pay for most of the $56.3 million cost. And WSU would need to study its feasibility.

But it’s now part of the area’s long-range transportation plan after a vote last week by local officials.

Personal rapid transit involves small automated vehicles, often called pods, that run along fixed routes. Heathrow Airport in London has a personal rapid transit system.

West Virginia University has maintained a robust network on its campus in Morgantown since the 1970s. About 15,000 people ride the system each day during the school year. The pods can go up to 30 mph and carry 20 people, according to a WVU website.

The proposed project in Wichita would have two parts. First, a system would serve WSU’s main campus, Koch Arena and the Innovation Campus, a public-private development on the university’s former Braeburn Golf Course.

The system would take people to campus from Hughes Metroplex at 29th Street and Oliver, which would act as primary parking for students and visitors to athletic facilities like Koch Arena.

Having the personal rapid transit system would reduce the “need to construct one or possibly two parking structures on campus and…reduce the amount of vehicular traffic on campus,” according to the proposal.

The second phase would extend the WSU system to 9th Street and I-135, an area by the KU School of Medicine. The PRT would go south on Hydraulic and then west on Douglas to St. Francis, just north of Intrust Bank Arena.

That system’s main purpose would be “to provide 24 hour per day, 7 day per week transit service to low-to-moderate income areas” for access to Wesley Medical Center, the arena and retail shopping, dining and entertainment in Old Town, according to the proposal.

The majority of the project would be paid for by federal grants if the U.S. Department of Transportation approved it.

The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program was created through the 2009 stimulus package. States and local governments compete for limited funds, making it a “highly competitive process, galvanized by tremendous applicant interest,” according to the department.

It’s unclear if or when the next phase of TIGER grant applications would be accepted under the new administration.

WSU would pay for studies to determine if such a system would be possible or a good idea in Wichita. University Vice President of Strategic Communications Lou Heldman said it’s not known how much those studies could cost.

“Wichita State is always interested in working with local government on cost-effective transportation options,” Heldman wrote in an e-mail. “But now we’re just exploring whether or not to do a study to learn more.”

The system could benefit many Wichitans who don’t have access to transportation, said Phil Nelson, director of the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“The vision of this service was designed as a way to enhance the success of the Innovation Campus while having a positive impact to the surrounding and connecting communities,” he said.

A Tuesday vote by the Transportation Policy Body, made up of local, state and federal officials, added the project to the planning organization’s long-term plan.

That needed to be done before any grant application, said Tricia Thomas, the organization’s communications manager.

“This gives us a way to move forward,” Thomas said.

Nelson said the city of Wichita had unsuccessfully applied for a previous TIGER grant for its transit service. He added that there would still be future votes of approval on the project.

“It would be brought back through the process to see if funds would be approved,” Nelson said. “Right now, the money is a placeholder.”

Nelson said the $56.3 million cost of the project will likely change, largely dependent on feasibility studies done by WSU.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, who voted against amending the long-term plan, raised concerns about the price tag. He added that a feasibility study should be done before the project was added to a plan.

“That’s a lot of money,” Ranzau said. “It’s problematic for a lot of reasons.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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