By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I couldn’t help but notice a brief article that recently moved on the Associated Press wire and provided information that the Personal Rapid Transit — PRT — system in Morgantown was going to be closed starting today and continuing for a two-week period. The temporary closing is for system maintenance and minor repairs. According to the story, shuttle buses would provide transportation system-wide during the time the system was down.
The PRT system was up and running during my brief period of time as a bus driver II, and a proud member of the West Virginia University classified staff. I don’t know how it is for other classified staff, but driving a campus bus wasn’t a very glamorous position. I met some really nice students and I got paid time-and-a-half for every hour I worked over 40 hours a week, but long work weeks like that were extremely tiring. My base week was five, 11-hour days, but if I worked weekends it could push my hours for the pay period much higher.
My first day driving bus was on Aug. 16, 1977 — the day that the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, died. “Stoney” Stone, the bus driver II who took me on my training trip, told me I would always remember my first day because of the connection with Elvis’ passing. It’s not a hard day to look up. I can remember every detail of that day thanks to Stoney planting the notion in my mind.
I had been driving campus bus for almost one full year when the PRT was temporarily de-railed for a major expansion project. Of course, we were accustomed to brief unexpected service interruptions. I don’t know what the plan is now, but back in the 1970s when the PRT cars stopped, a yellow light came on and rotated at each station. That was a signal for the bus driver IIs like me to complete the run we were on at the time, and alter our routes to duplicate the PRT routes.
When I was working at WVU, I rode the PRT a few times just to see what the experience was all about. It was actually pretty cool. I had been on a driver-less shuttle transport at Dallas International Airport before, but it operated on level land and a track that wasn’t subject to the weather extremes of northern West Virginia.
Since I didn’t have to make it to a class on time when I rode the PRT, I wasn’t pressured to get from one place to another. As a result, I can’t judge it like a student might have judged the system back in those days. I rather enjoyed the experience. As I recall at that time, the expense of the project was roughly the equivalent of what it would have cost to buy every student enrolled at WVU that fall a new Mercedes Benz automobile. I would have liked to have had enough money to buy a new car back then.
The PRT was functioning when I landed my bus driver II position, and in a short time, I could see the wisdom of developing a modern public transit system that was capable of transporting a large volume of students from the downtown campus to the Evansdale campus in a short period of time. When the roads into or out of Morgantown were choked with traffic like during football games or any Friday while school was in session, the campus buses were totally ineffective. Inching my way with a loaded bus through the crowd after the end of a game at old Mountaineer Field was a mind-bending experience. I can still see the sea of faces in my mind’s eye.
The mountains, valleys and the meandering Monongahela River locked Morgantown into a limited topographical area, but the genius of the PRT people mover made it possible to transport thousands of students between two distinctively different campuses in a way that remains sensitive to the scheduling requirements of a modern university.
When I was a young person, I seldom considered the bigger picture of experimenting with public transportation. As I look back now, I realize that I was shortsighted. The people mover enabled WVU to grow in a way that would not have been possible without it. I didn’t expect to live the balance of my life as a bud driver II, but I have to say that I enjoyed all the overtime pay I received when the PRT was down for system maintenance. It made going to the grocery store a much more fulfilling experience.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.