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The ride of the future?
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Lighweight composite cars are key to affordable Personal Rapid Transit. The cars wait at a station. A rider pays by swiping a card, like a credit card. The trip is programmed in, and the car goes directly to the desired destination. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)
A Twin Cities inventor's vision to replace the automobile could get its first real test in Duluth. Ed Anderson's company has developed a system of rails, computers, and small electric cars to move people quickly and efficiently through congested areas. It just needs a home and a pile of money.

Duluth, Minn. — One of the State Fair's popular attractions is just a slow 78 foot one-way ride. But imagine what it could be.

Ed Anderson calls his baby 'Skyweb Express'. At the fair, red bubble cars roll silently on a narrow track. A recorded voice extolls the virtues of Personal Rapid Transit.

In practice, the little composite cars would zip up to forty miles an hour non-stop to a rider's pre-programmed destination. Lightweight guideways could mount on pillars, or hang from buildings. Anderson says the cost of building Skyweb Express is a bargain compared to installing other mass transportation, like a subway, or light rail.

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Image Ed Anderson

"We can build and operate these things at a profit, whereas conventional transit has to be heavily subsidized," Anderson says.

Anderson claims Skyweb Express can move as many people as a three lane freeway - and far more efficiently.

So far, Skyweb Express is just this small demonstration. Anderson needs to prove it works. He's proposing a 22 hundred foot long prototype. There's a lot of interest coming from places like New Jersey, Chicago, Singapore, and Duluth.

"Right now, Duluth is farther along in the process than anyone else," says Anderson.

Yes, Duluth - Minnesota's hilly and often frozen tourist mecca.

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Image Skyweb Express composite car

"We want to be in a place where it snows, and where you have cold winters as well as warm summers," he says. "And, the hills in Duluth, we want to show with the linear induction motors we have, we can go up rather steep hills. We would like to demonstrate that," says Anderson.

But Anderson's company is a few million dollars short.

"We don't have a lot of money, that's what it really amounts to," he says. "We're a small company. We're a catalyst in this. But I've told Duluth that if they come up with just $5 million, we would commit to Duluth."

Anderson is serious. He says the system is ready to go. Five million dollars would spur the investment for a $24 million certification facility. And the company comes along with the track.

Many locals are already on board. Duluth engineer Richard Ojard may be Skyweb's loudest cheerleader.

"Oh, this is the transportation system of the future," Ojard says.

He says Duluth is already involved. Ojard's engineering firm designed the Skyweb Express guideway. Duluth Company Bend Tec actually built it. Skyweb Express has chatted with local airplane manufacturer Cirrus Design about manufacturing the composite cars. And the University of Minnesota already owns a piece of the company.

"UMD could be training the engineers of the future; the computer softwear programmers; electrical engineers; (and) mechanical engineers," Ojard says. "Somebody's going to have to run these systems."

Duluth could become the center of a billion dollar industry.

"What's going to happen, it's going to bring people in from throughout the world to come here to look at the system; see how it operates; so they can see how it can operate in their village or town throughout the world," Ojard says.

Dennis Jensen manages the Duluth Transit Authority. He says Skyweb Express is both practical transportation, and a potential attraction.

"And, I think it'll give the whole downtown and the Canal Park a whole new image," Jensen says. "People would come here just to see this. And it would also at the same time, help with that problem of moving people from the fringe parking areas into the downtown area, and then eventually between the downtown area and the Canal Park area," says Jensen.

Jensen says the system avoids the high cost of land aquisition that makes highways or light rail so expensive.

"It's very exciting," he says. "I think it's very doable. And the question is, is just who's going to be there first to build it," says Jensen. "I hope it's the City of Duluth."

There's no official proposal yet. And there are plenty of unanswered issues like right-of-way and zoning. But local officials are looking at ways of matching private investment with federal grants to at least get the project started in Duluth.

Meanwhile, the Skyweb Express short version can be seen - and ridden - in the Wonders of Technology Building at the Minnesota State Fair.

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