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Conservatives "Re-Writing History"

June 16, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Opposition to modern transit development may be on the wane in most parts of Minnesota, but it's alive and well in one surprising location: The Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

"Light rail is an expensive investment without return except as an exercise in chest-thumping to make a city feel like it's in the big leagues."

That's a quote from Lyle Wray, former Citizens League executive director, posted in big letters in the history center's long-running transportation exhibit "Going Places: The Mystique of Mobility." It enjoys equal billing with more mildly-worded praise of light rail in the display's vintage Soo Line boxcar.

What's worse, an accompanying video clip features half a dozen anti-light rail comments, some from anonymous on-the-street interviewees, some from inveterate transit bashers at the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

Worse yet, the exhibit also includes plenty of promotion of personal rapid transit, a thoroughly failed technology that has been embraced by both the rabid right and the lunatic left, mainly as a foil to responsible transit proposals.

Former State Representative Mark Olson from Big Lake who stubbornly opposed the Northstar commuter rail line to his hometown, appears in another history center video touting PRT. But he and other podcar proponents go unrebutted in the clip or anywhere else in the exhibit.

Minneapolis artist, activist and blogger Ken Avidor tipped me off to this weird imbalance in a museum installation funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and private foundations. "Shouldn't we expect more from a publicly funded institution to educate citizens about an important subject such as transportation?" he said.

 The exhibit has been up since 2004, the year Minnesota's first light-rail line opened for business. Since then, the Hiawatha line has shattered projections for both ridership and economic development again and again.

PRT? It has continued its virtually unbroken record of up-to-ninefold cost overruns, technical failures and abandoned projects on three continents. Nearly a half-century after automated systems of small, individual vehicles on elevated guideway loops were first dreamed up as transit solutions, podcars haven't penetrated municipal transit anywhere in the world.

But still visitors to the history center, operated by the state-chartered Minnesota Historical Society, get propaganda like this from Minnesota-based Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit: "Driven by electric motors, PRT rapid transit has the potential to end our reliance on foreign oil."

I suppose that could be true in some fantasy future-world. Meanwhile, light rail, driven by electric motors, is actually reducing reliance on foreign oil. But you can't tell that from a tour of "Going Places."

When I visited the exhibit last week, I saw a large sign, set between similar ones describing the Hiawatha and Northstar projects, promoting the PRT vision of a Minnesota company called Skyweb Express. "Ride the Future!" is the headline.

Then I pressed a button for a 90-second video clip on PRT and learned everything I needed to know about this bogus concept: It wasn't working.

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