Posted: October 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm

By Milly Mullins, Jonathan Nelson, Michael Ploger

West Virginia University is home to a transportation system unlike any other.  The Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) can be seen whizzing around on an elevated rail at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, comfortably carrying 20 passengers per car between the university’s downtown campus and its Evansdale campus two miles away.

Many say the PRT, first conceived in the late 60s, was an idea way before its time. Today, however, student satisfaction with this unique public transit system is at an all-time low.  Despite being able to carry students between the university’s two campuses within an average of 12 minutes, the PRT’s electric cars routinely break down, making students late for class and other activities.

“I use it every day, and I’d say about 50 percent of the time something is wrong with it,” says Lauren Cappello, first year student at WVU.

The problem, PRT staff say, is that the company that originally built the distinctive gold and blue cars went out of business years ago and it is very difficult to get spare parts to fix the vehicles, some of which date back to the 1970’s.  Right now, the university department that operates the PRT doesn’t have the funding to buy new cars and do the kind of overhaul that would measurably improve its operation.

PRT cars whiz in and out of the maintenance center at all times of the day and night.

As a result, the system is up and running only 93 to 97 percent of the time, according to the Daily Athenaeum.  That extra three to seven percent of downtime can mean as much as 30 minutes or more per day for students stuck at a station, or in a vehicle.  As a result, many students no longer rely on it, Cappello says.

“When I first got here, a lot of the people I knew who were older said ‘Don’t rely on it, we hate it, we never use it anymore,” she says.

The idea for the PRT was dreamed up in 1966 by Samuel Elias, a former engineering professor at West Virginia University, according to The Daily Athenaeum. The original project was funded by the federal government as a pilot to see how a relatively small city (like Morgantown) could relay passengers between two campuses using automated electric cars on a railbed.  By 1975, cars were running between Beechurst and Walnut avenues on the downtown campus, according to the Governing website, which covers local government. Four years later, three other stations were added to complete what the PRT system consists of today.

“Given that this was the first project of its kind, I don’t believe the original designers intended this to last as long as it has,” says Arlie Forman, Associate Director for the PRT.  Forman explained that the original designs for the PRT only extended from 10 to 15 years, but it is now in it’s 37th year.

Currently, the PRT serves 14,500 WVU students, employees, faculty, visitors and Morgantown residents daily. Anybody can climb aboard and travel between the university’s  Health Sciences Center to Walnut Street in downtown Morgantown, if they have a student or staff ID or are willing to pay 50 cents each way.

But the system is unreliable, students say. They can either take the PRT and hope it doesn’t break down, or they can drive downtown and struggle to find a parking spot. Or they can wait for a Mountain line bus and hop on board if it’s not too crowded.  Each choice offers the specter of an unexpected delay or mishap, students say.

“When it’s running it’s good, but it breaks down at the most inconvenient times,” says Tyler Stovall, a second-year student at WVU.

PRT staff have drawn up a master overhaul for improving the system, which consists of  upgrades to the cars and maintenance facilities, possible expansion of the rail line to the waterfront, and an estimated $36 million train control project to guarantee higher reliability.  The entire overhaul is expected to cost around $93 million, according to Arlie Forman, Associate Director of the PRT Administration.

PRT maintenance workers repair the undercarriage and wheel base of one of the system’s distinctive electric cars.

Currently, however, the university and state together only provide a total of about $5.8 million annually for the system, which doesn’t come close to what is needed to improve the PRT’s reliability. On September 28, 2012, the WVU Board of Governor’s approved the funding of $15 million to cover the first phased upgrade to the PRT, according to the West Virginia Gazette. This phase would outfit the fleet of PRT cars with a new on-board vehicle computer system and replace the vehicles’ propulsion units.

To pay for phase I, the university hopes to use a combination of federal grants and bonds, says Hugh Kierig, director of transportation and parking for the university. But PRT staff acknowledged that complete reliability may not be achieved in the first phase, due to be completed in the fall of 2013, according to The Daily Athenaeum.

Once the entire overhaul is completed, PRT officials hope to obtain a 99 percent reliability level for the system, Kierig says.

In the meantime, frustrated students will just have to put up with being late to class.