P3s unlock new microtransit options

News Analysis 25 May

P3s unlock new microtransit options

Microtransit projects that use cutting-edge technology have the potential to bring transit-type projects to cities that otherwise couldn't support rapid transit. P3 developers could play a major role in this expansion.

The promise of autonomous vehicles and the expense and time of building traditional rail systems has US cities exploring innovative ways for residents to commute and travel to airports and rail hubs. Proponents of microtransit envision systems that transport riders on demand and at low cost, using automated transit networks (ATN) that feature automated electric vehicles traveling on grade-separate guideways.

Advances in vehicle technology, combined with the flexibility of public-private partnership financing, are now opening many new possibilities for public transit in medium sized cities.

“It used to be that transit could only be implemented in major cities. This was mostly due to the time it took to develop them, the cost of these projects, and the need to fill trains,” says Sia Kusha, an executive at P3 developer Plenary Americas. But now, “much smaller owners, public or private, can have transit systems, if ATNs are deployed,” he says.

P3s are expected to play a key role in building microtransit  ATN projects, as municipalities look to share the risk of building the first systems, government officials and developers say. “Government entities could be hesitant to provide funding for a USD 500m, or a USD 1bn deal, that relies on unproven technology,” says Ramses Madou, division manager in the department of transportation for of San Jose, California.

The city near San Francisco is currently considering using a revenue risk P3 for the DBFOM of a three-to-four mile guideway, to connect Diridon Station in downtown San Jose to Mineta San Jose International Airport. Driverless transit technology would be installed on the guideway.

Golden State projects

The San Francisco Bay area is emerging as a hotbed for microtransit innovation. Transportation officials in California’s Contra Costa County north of San Jose believe microtransit has the potential to provide crucial “first and last mile” transit service, according to Timothy Haile, executive director of the county’s department of transportation.

“Drivers have often arrived at the BART station, or a Park and Ride lot, and find that the parking lot is full, so they drive to their destination,” Haile says. Frequently, these lots are full by 6am.  

Microtransit can provide commuters with a connection to these stations, Haile says, and can also provide a transit option for “people who live in low-income neighborhoods, who may not have access to transit.”  Contra Costa has embarked on a procurement to find a P3 developer to help build a microtransit project. The county envisions a fare-based, multi-city, networked, on-demand system that will operate within the Bay area, and include direct origin-to-destination service; fully automated vehicles; on-demand service; and 24/7 availability.

The project, with an 11 mile at-grade segment length, and a 17-mile elevated segment length, has an estimated capital cost of USD 451m. The county’s transportation department anticipates issuing an RFP for the project this summer, according to a spokesperson for the agency.  

A P3 developer can serve various roles on the project, such as acting as the developer of the access points for the Dynamic Personal Microtransit  (DPMT) project, Haile says. The developer could also design, build, operate and maintain the system, and invest equity.

The procurement follows a 2019 study by four cities in the county that envisioned the microtransit project using technology developed by transportation technology company Glydways, though bidders are not required to use this approach.

Glyding towards capital

Glydways has designed personal driverless electric vehicles that operate on-demand in dedicated at-grade or elevated paved paths.

A key to the Glydways system is the significantly lower capital cost to build and operate it, in comparison to a commuter rail line, according to founder Mark Seeger. Glydcars have the turning radius of a normal automobile, so they are able to operate entirely on publicly-owned land, according to Seeger.  

The construction of a passenger rail system often requires the acquisition of privately-owned land. And while a commuter rail line may operate half-empty trains at off-peak times, Glydways works differently.  

“If it’s one o’clock in the morning, and everyone’s asleep, I don’t deploy any vehicles except for the odd person coming home late from a dinner or drinks,” Seeger says. “From a unit economic point of view, my dollars per person per miles traveled are independent of system utilization.” This means that the fare to use a Glydcar will be comparable to a mass transit ticket, Seeger maintains. 

Glydways is now “engaged in discussions with a world-renowned P3 entity,” to form a partnership, Seeger says. The partnership “will allow us to scale up to global relevance relatively quickly.” The company’s technology is designed to operate at a profit, which will attract investors. “We can provide a long-term, stable return, an attractive return to private capital,” Seeger says.

Last year, Plenary and Glydways submitted an unsolicited proposal for the San Jose Airport Connector P3 project.  

Glydways is currently testing its technology at a vehicle testing facility in Concord, California. The Glydways facility includes control infrastructure, access points and a vehicle maintenance facility.

As the first projects head towards procurement, the question now is whether microtransit that depends on innovation, such as ATN, can deliver on all of its promises.

“Technology for a microtransit system could pass muster on a test track, but can it work in a real situation, where 2,000 of these vehicles are in operation?” San Jose’s Madou said. “I’m bullish on them, but can they operate effectively, for the price of a mass transit ticket?”  

That may mean that a P3 developer who wants to be part of a microtransit project that could involve autonomous vehicles may have to “act like a venture capitalist,” he says.

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