The Simpsons, “Marge vs. the Monorail”

Thanks to Paul Coble, the Tea Party chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, the plan for a comprehensive light rail system in the Triangle is stalled out. Durham and Orange Counties have both put half-cent sales taxes in place to raise funds for the still-ten-years-out system, but without Wake, the circle is broken.

Recognizing the immense social and political barriers to a light-rail system for this region that desperately needs one, Seth Hollar and Marshall Brain from NC State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative have taken matters into their own hands with a plan for a privately funded, “market-driven” transit system around NC State. They’re calling it EcoPRT. PRT stands for “Personal Rapid Transit.” If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because this automated, monorail-like idea hasn’t really caught on in the US, probably because it looks absurd. The photo illustrations and mock ups look almost exactly like EPCOT Center’s WEDWay PeopleMover. PRT’s most infamous actually implemented system links London Heathrow’s airport terminals to a parking lot. Not the kind of thing that is taking the world by storm.

EcoPRT’s website is filled with photo illustrations of NC State and Cameron Village superimposed with a 1980s-toy-like elevated line ferrying boxy little 2-3 passenger pods around. A slightly amateurish EcoPRT video ticks off the benefits of the EcoPRT scheme: Privately funded. Low cost. Profitable. Growing organically. All over the planet.

All over the planet? Organic? The buzzwords have all been selected to interest, not the community, but some foolish California venture capitalist. The website and the project, frankly, looks like an MBA undergrad’s mock-up senior project.

But EcoPRT is (kind of) real. They have garnered an impressive group of blurbs from regional transit boosters like John Kane, Eric Lamb from the city of Raleigh, the executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, and the VP of Business Development for Research Triangle Park.

And to be fair, they are raising money, so they need to woo those venture capitalists somehow.

Eric Lamb, manager of transportation planning for the city of Raleigh, says he trusts Seth Hollar and Marshall Brain. Hollar has an impressive CV of engineering degrees from Ivy universities and Brain is famous for creating the ultra-ubiquitous and no-doubt-lucrative brand HowStuffWorks—as seen on the Discovery Channel. “I’m behind anybody who comes up with creative, cost-effective transit solutions,” Lamb said.

“It’s a kind of personalized fixed taxi…not quite Johnny Cab from Total Recall but close,” Lamb laughed.

EcoPRT is still in the early conceptual stages. Lamb said he has met with Hollar and Brain to discuss potential issues with making the plan ADA compliant. Jeff Murrison, executive director of Hillsborough Street Community Service Corporation, said he has not yet heard anything about EcoPRT.

Yes, a plan for a tinker-car monorail on Hillsborough Street seems like the kind of tech-MBA-bubble idea that is doomed to fail. I can already imagine the weeds and rust growing up around the mostly-unused PRT system.

But given the pathetic stalemate over a real, publicly-funded transit system, what other options do we have?