By Josh Akeman
At Thursday night's meeting, Fayetteville's city council heard a presentation from Bill James about JPods, an innovative solar-powered personal rapid transit (PRT) system he has been pitching to various governments for fourteen years, hoping to get the clearance to acquire right of way and build a network. The idea, which involves suspended rail vehicles that can be hailed on demand, is supported by Mayor Greg Clifton as a viable free market solution to transportation problems for communities like Fayetteville and Fayette County. James presented a novel and "Jetsonian" image of what Fayetteville could look like with such a transit system, and touted it as an alternative to the highway system, and an answer for America's dependence on foreign oil.
While the presentation offered an interesting look at a transportation system that some cities in other countries have implemented, the viability of the idea for Fayette County was questioned, as were James' intentions. Councilman Larry Dell challenged James with a press release he found online, bearing James' name, entitled "Fayetteville, Ga. Signs PRT Letter of Intent: Georgia To Be First with Solar-Powered Transport System."
As of press time, the press release dated Dec. 21, 2012 can still be found on the blog of Personal Rapid Transport Consulting, at the website www.prtconsulting.com. A google search for 'JPods Fayetteville' also yielded a Google Groups discussion group featuring correspondence from James saying "it looks like we've broken the right-of-way barrier," and then referencing a September resolution from Mayor Clifton that generally supported "private sector solutions" to Atlanta's traffic congestion. The resolution made no specific reference to JPods or any other specific transportation innovations.
In response to Dell's questioning James said the press release was not meant to be released to the public and that he had thought the resolution had been passed within the context of the JPod idea. Councilman Walt White emphasized that the resolution had been passed with the Mayor's tie-breaking vote. The resolution was in fact passed with White and Dell opposing it, while Paul Oddo and Mickey Edwards voted in favor. Councilman Ed Johnson abstained from voting, allowing Mayor Clifton to break the tie in favor of the resolution.
Clifton said in an interview on Friday that he still supports the JPod idea and other innovative, free market solutions for traffic congestion as well as the larger need for energy independence. He agreed, though, that James had gone too far in suggesting Fayetteville had already agreed to anything, and also emphasized he himself has no financial interest in JPods.
"I'm sure he was trying to capitalize on every little bit of publicity he could get from it, absolutely," Clifton said, and added that he had told James as much in an e-mail, saying, "you got the cart in front of the horse, we haven't made any commitments."
Clifton says his resolution was designed to support private sector solutions to transportation, rather than any particular project.
"The idea was rather than government taxing people to pay for transportation, let's let the private sector do that," Clifton said.
Much of James' presentation emphasized the power of the private sector to, when given the chance, innovate and substantially improve quality of life for the average citizen. James pointed to "radical innovations" in the past where government got out of a market and innovation flourished.
"The federal government controlled communications as a monopoly from World War I to about 1982. In 1982 we restored free markets and we went from a century of rotary phones to millions of jobs, vast innovation, and better services at lower costs," James said.
In terms of cost savings to consumers, James said it costs 56 cents per mile on average to travel by car, whereas JPods would cost only .06 cents per mile. He said if a network were installed along the golf cart paths in Peachtree City, for example, it could save an average family $2,500 to $5,000 per year in transportation costs.
James, a veteran who served in Iraq, also repeatedly emphasized the problem of America's dependance on foreign oil.
"We've been at war since 1990 defending our foreign oil, and done almost nothing to get off of our need for that oil," James said. He also displayed graphs showing the correlation between rising gas prices and unemployment.
Councilmen White and Dell both said the failure of the T-SPLOST referendum showed how Fayette citizens felt about public transportation, though James argued this this technology is not like public transportation because each JPod is meant for personal transportation of up to only six people to a specific location. Additionally, he said the system would be privately funded, not supported by tax dollars.
James said that he had been repeatedly turned down for the idea for over a decade, but argued that was a failure of politicians to be willing to "be the first," in terms of innovation. He said he has a number of clients, including airports and cities, that would license JPod systems if his company could find a first location to build and demonstrate their effectiveness.
"These are being built everywhere but in America because people don't want to be first in America any more, politicians don't want to be first," James said, arguing that Fayetteville could serve as a Kitty Hawk, the location where the Wright Brothers' first flight took place.
"Kitty Hawk is famous not because it's an airport, but because it was first," James asserted, going on to say, "innovation is very rare and very difficult to implement, and it will always face a lot of naysayers."
From Clifton's perspective, he agrees that Fayetteville and Fayette County are not ideally suited to make JPods a profitable venture in and of themselves. On the other hand, he thinks these sorts of ventures would bring jobs and make Fayetteville an example to the rest of the country in terms of energy independence.
"If we could break the ice and get something started, there would be a great deal of potential. If we had a demonstrator here people could fly in from all over and try it out and say 'I gotta get me one of these,'" Clifton said, adding that with the instability in the Middle East: "If in fact oil prices do escalate and we wind up with fifteen dollar a gallon gas people will need some alternative forms of transprotation. If gas prices go crazy and we already have this started we'll look really bright."
No action was taken following the presentation and back and forth discussion. Clifton said the idea will be handled by a study committee and that there will likely be town hall meetings to get the public involved.