Bill James almost wishes he had been in charge of transportation at MetLife Stadium when thousands of Super Bowl fans were stuck for hours last February, waiting for trains to take them back to Secaucus Junction.
The Minneapolis inventor figures he could have emptied the big East Rutherford stadium at least three times faster by using his patented solar-powered JPod monorail system, sometimes called personal rapid transit.
“Trains are inefficient, especially in stadiums,” he said in an interview last week, noting that big venues usually provide only two portals per train — one in, one out — which can make boarding large groups on big passenger cars exceptionally time consuming. These waits can be especially annoying for return trips and re-boarding, particularly when trains make local stops.
As James tells it, his privately financed system of small, high-speed cars — or pods — cruising high above traditional traffic, could revolutionize mass transportation. This argument is especially compelling in densely populated places like North Jersey, where thoroughfares become clogged at the slightest provocation near a mall, an industrial park, an airport, a university, a hotel or a big stadium on Route 3. If these locations could be adapted to include dozens of portals for easy entry and exit, he said, a solar-powered network carrying hundreds of pods could quickly and inexpensively transport hundreds of small groups of four or five passengers from major thoroughfares to specific destinations and back again.
“For example, instead of long waits for a train at the stadium,” James estimated, “you could enter a pod at various locations, punch in your destination and be transported out of the building and onto Route 3 where you’d be taken almost anywhere you want along our network.”
If that sounds far-fetched or cost-prohibitive or just plain crazy, keep your eyes on the Secaucus side of Route 3 at Meadowland Parkway opposite the stadium and the big American Dream Meadowlands complex now under construction. Three miles of busy Meadowland Parkway is where James plans to begin building his own dream — a $120 million, solar-powered monorail system — that’s expected to get under way by early next year at the latest.
“It won’t cross Route 3 to the stadium,” he said, “but I think it will make our point.”
His point is that correctly designed personal-rapid-transit systems might well be, according to James, the fastest, safest, most energy-efficient, most convenient, most cost-effective, most environmentally sound way for people to get around in the 21st century.
This claim is open to strenuous debate, of course, among experts who have researched mass-transit alternatives for decades. For example, Princeton University Professor Alain Kornhauser, once a strong advocate of personal rapid transit, has shifted his research emphasis to Internet-based driverless cars — formally called autonomous vehicles — that require little, if any, alteration of existing roadways.
“There are real advantages for building personal-rapid-transit systems in places where they’re needed, so I support it,” said Kornhauser, who heads Princeton’s transportation research program. “But once you build it there, how do you move it out to residential neighborhoods? Will people accept infrastructure they can see just outside their windows?”
James believes his Secaucus pilot project will become the first part of a network that will continue another three miles east on Routes 3 and 495 to the Lincoln Tunnel at Weehawken, assuming he can get the necessary state approvals. But as with nearly every start-up, nothing is certain.
Nevertheless, hardly anyone disputes the main advantages offered by his JPod system, which is named for the J-like hook that attaches each pod to an overhead rail called a guideway:
- Low-cost solar power that drives the system.
- Lightweight pods that help cut operating costs to a tenth of the cost of cars and an eighth of the cost of trains.
- Driverless computerized routing with an onboard keypad that allows passengers to determine each stop along the network.
- Private ownership and investment of the system that eliminates the need for government financing.
- Inexpensive fares in the $5 range, including a 5 percent fee for the municipality.
“The benefits are obvious,” said Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli. “It’s energy efficient, solar-powered, environmentally friendly, and it’s not going to cost the town a penny. So we’re all for it.”
Although Secaucus hasn’t awarded JPods Inc. a building permit yet, approvals seem all but assured. Last June, the mayor and council adopted energy-efficiency standards for building personal-rapid-transit systems over its rights of way that fall well within JPod’s parameters.
James, a West Point-trained engineer who once built computer systems to manage just-in-time manufacturing products, had been scouring the nation for 16 years to find a government entity willing to accept his ideas. When asked about jurisdictions that ignored or rejected his proposals, he began reciting a long, long list.
“San Jose; Atlanta; Minneapolis; St. Paul; Rochester, N.Y.; Rochester Minn.; Seattle; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the New Jersey Department of Transportation. There are at least a couple of hundred,” he said.
“Bureaucrats and consultants think and talk, but they’re not doers,” he declared. “If the idea doesn’t fit the way they currently do things, they have a hard time accepting it.”
Part of James’ problem is his lack of a prototype — a small working model that shows his concept is valid. Without it, he found it difficult, for example, to sell the Port Authority on a system for Newark Liberty and La Guardia airports. The state Department of Transportation also refused to give right-of-way authorization for a system that crosses state highways.
Early in his quest, James realized his ideas would never attract public financing. He said he has found backers to raise the $120 million needed to build the project.
“The transcontinental railroad was built with private funds in the 19th century,” he said. “This is no different: Government is better off governing and regulating, not running things.”