Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport is soliciting bids for a pod car transit system that would be the first of its kind at a U.S. airport and the sixth such system in the world, according to experts.
The proposed Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system – if it gets built – would carry passengers between GSP’s economy parking lot and the airport terminal building.
Passengers would ride in driverless, computer-controlled pod cars along a dedicated guideway that would be nearly 14 feet high in places.
They would use kiosks to summon the pod cars at any time of day or night, beginning their rides at a passenger station on the north side of the terminal building or at one of two or three stations in the economy parking lot.
The electricity-powered trip would take an average of five minutes.
Each pod car would be capable of carrying four to six passengers and their luggage. The cars would come equipped with security cameras and intercoms to enhance safety.
The system would provide “on demand” service, unlike the shuttle buses at many airports or automated “people movers” such as the one that hauls passengers between concourses at the Atlanta airport.
Shuttle buses and people movers operate on fixed routes, carrying different parties to different destinations, usually pausing at each stop along the way.
In a PRT system, traveling parties have the pod cars for their exclusive use, and ride only to the location where they want to go without stopping along the way.
According to a 2014 research report by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, there are currently five PRT systems in full public operation around the world – in Morgantown, West Virginia; London; Abu Dhabi; Rotterdam; and Suncheon Bay, South Korea.
The only PRT system at an airport now is at London’s Heathrow Airport, where passengers have been riding pod cars between an outlying parking lot and Terminal 5 for the past five years.
The only PRT system in the United States is at West Virginia University in Morgantown. That system, funded by the federal government as a demonstration project, has been carrying students between campuses since 1975.
Customer service issue
Right now, walking is the only way to travel between the economy parking lot and the terminal building at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.
The distance can be almost a half-mile, depending on where you park and where in the terminal you need to go, farther than many passengers with luggage care to walk.
Dave Edwards, airport president, said complaints about the lack of transportation to and from the economy lot routinely show up in the airport’s quarterly customer surveys.
“That’s really what this is about, customer service,” he said. “Folks would like some type of a transportation system.”
Many airports use shuttle buses to transport passengers between outlying parking lots and terminal buildings.
But after studying PRT technology, and commissioning a feasibility study, Edwards concluded the proposed $20 million PRT system would provide better service and wouldn’t cost much more than a shuttle bus system over a 30-year period.
Edwards said the PRT system also would give Greenville-Spartanburg flexibility as it wrestles with a looming big-ticket item – the need to add more parking.
Greenville-Spartanburg currently has 4,426 parking spaces but will need 5,009 by 2018 to meet demand, according to a feasibility study.
To create more parking, Edwards said, Greenville-Spartanburg might build another parking garage for $25-30 million, or spend $7.5 million to build another surface lot for economy parking.
However, if it chooses to build a second economy lot, that lot would be so far away from the terminal building that passengers would need some kind of a ride, either a shuttle bus or a PRT pod car, Edwards said.
If Greenville-Spartanburg builds a PRT system to provide rides to and from the existing economy lot, it could expand that system to serve a second economy lot in the future, he said.
Edwards said another benefit of building a PRT system is that it would send a message that the Upstate is “looking to the future.”
“We want to be a leader in this,” he said. “We want show what you can do, and do it smart and do it wisely and deliver a product that is not only in the long-term a cost-effective product but provides a high level of customer service.”
Edwards said Greenville-Spartanburg could cover the $20 million capital cost out of its existing capital budget over time, though he also may seek federal grants and private sponsorships.
To cover operations and maintenance for the PRT system, the airport may hike the fee for parking in the economy lot from the current $4 a day to $5 a day or $6 a day, Edwards said.
Are buses better?
Robert Aguirre, director of commercial sales for Proterra, a manufacturer of battery-powered transit buses with a factory in Greenville, said he could provide the airport with three 35-foot buses and a charger for about $2.1 million.
And the Federal Aviation Administration might pay half of that cost under programs to promote emissions reduction and environmentally friendly ground transportation at airports, said Aguirre, who used to run commercial sales for Tesla Motors.
If Greenville-Spartanburg installed a shuttle system using Proterra buses, it could be the first East Coast airport with an all-electric shuttle system, Aguirre said, and the airport would be helping a local company at the same time.
Edwards, however, said Proterra’s buses are too big to maneuver easily around the airport’s parking lots.
And since Proterra buses last 12 years, GSP would have to buy buses three timesto operate the bus shuttle system for 30 years, he said.
In addition, Edwards noted, a PRT system doesn’t require the hiring of drivers or add to traffic congestion in front of the airport terminal building as a shuttle bus system would.
“There’s no question that PRT carries with it a higher upfront capital cost, but that is offset by lower operating costs over the life of the system and that’s really where the payback is,” Edwards said.
A visit to London
Edwards said the idea for a PRT system surfaced several years ago when he bumped into Greenville County Councilman Fred Payne at a meeting and Payne began talking about PRT.
It’s a favorite subject for Payne, who’s been exploring the idea of putting a PRT system on a stretch of former freight railroad that the county controls between Pleasantburg Drive and Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.
Edwards said he talked with Payne about PRT on and off for months before deciding to travel to London and see the system at Heathrow Airport for himself. In London, Edwards said Heathrow officials told him they were happy with the system and were planning to expand it.
Edwards also visited the offices of Ultra PRT, the company in Bristol, England, that developed the Heathrow system.
After returning from England, Edwards arranged for a feasibility study.
It was conducted by PRT Consulting of the Denver area, the only consultancy in the nation that specializes in PRT, according to Peter Muller, president of the firm.
PRT Consulting also was hired to study the idea of a PRT system on the former rail line controlled by the county.
In its feasibility study for Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, PRT Consulting recommended that the airport spend $40 million on additional parking served by a PRT system, but start with an initial PRT system costing half as much to provide transportation between the terminal building and the existing economy parking lot.
Last month, the airport issued a Request For Proposals (RFP), seeking vendors to help it implement that PRT system.
Among those who joined a “pre-proposal” conference earlier this month were representatives from Ultra, the English company that developed the PRT system at Heathrow Airport, and 2getthere, a Dutch company that developed the PRT systems in Rotterdam and Abu Dhabi.
Firms that respond to the RFP and are “pre-qualified” by GSP will provide more details on costs.
If costs don’t escalate beyond current estimates, Edwards said, the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport Commission should make a final decision on whether to proceed with a PRT system at its July meeting.