The future, insofar as transportation goes, is a dud. The people movers, monorails and flying cars Hollywood promised a generation ago are nowhere to be found. In Florida, such innovations as bullet trains and light rail are nonstarters. The recently approved, multicounty $615 million commuter rail project (to which Orange County contributed $40 million, and Orlando about $14 million) spearheaded by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Maitland, is supposed to prime us for larger mass transit programs. But if it fails to meet ridership expectations – not an unlikely scenario, given its slow-go impracticality – dreams of a more utilitarian rail project could be dashed for decades to come.
Meanwhile, we trudge through the aggravating stop-and-go rush-hour traffic in our carbon dioxide–spewing internal combustion–powered automobiles, with no end in sight.
Only there is, according to Justin Eric Sutton, a Michigan man who in 1995 created the concept for the Interstate Traveler Project (aka the “Hydrogen Super Highway”), an all-inclusive, infrastructural green dream, with magnetic levitation technology, solar power, hydrogen extraction, steel-enforced conduit clusters and pod-like 1,000-square-foot transfer capsules waiting to be souped up with whatever amenities the mind can imagine – vehicle transfer, commuter traffic, medical triage, freight, high-end limousine service – and sent on their merry 300-mph way 35 feet above ground.
The future could be here sooner than you think. Sutton says that if federal officials cooperated, his Interstate Traveler Co. could build the superhighway along all 54,000 miles of the country’s interstate highway system, including I-4, in about a decade.
The space age doesn’t come cheap. The Hydrogen Super Highway would cost $250,000 per rail car and $15 million for every mile of track. That equals $810 billion for the track alone. That’s more than the gross domestic product of Taiwan.
Sutton, however, says the cost isn’t prohibitive. If local and federal governments agreed to a public-private partnership that he has proposed, he says, he could build the superhighway without taking a dime from taxpayers.
The superhighway works like this: Motors on the base of the rail cars radiate magnetic fields opposite to those on the tracks (which are powered by hydrogen and solar energy). The cars levitate above the tracks and can reach speeds of more than 300 mph. Each car would have radar systems to ward off hazards. Maglev technology has been employed in Germany and Asia with mixed results – in 2006, 23 people in Germany were killed in a collision with a maintenance vehicle.
Passengers could be picked up and dropped off at stops along the superhighway. Those who so desired could even store their automobiles in vehicle transport cars. Sutton also says that the Interstate Traveler will produce excess energy, which could then be sold to power companies or stored for emergencies.
Not surprisingly, Sutton – who has also patented a pool-cue conditioning device – is proud of his invention, calling it “the best collection of technologies, the best innovation for public transportation systems ever.”
Sutton believes investors will fund the massive project privately, and he’s insistent on keeping the government out. “In some cases the politicians that I’ve dealt with in different states have been a little indignant of the fact that we want to make sure that everybody gets paid,” he says. “They want to get control of the money and make people come begging for it. We don’t want that.”
But he’ll still need the government’s help, if not its checkbook. To build the project’s tracks, Interstate Traveler will have to obtain the rights-of-way alongside the nation’s interstate highways. Sutton wants the federal government to fork them over in exchange for revenue sharing. Under the proposed plan, each ride would cost between 5 and 10 cents per minute. Interstate Traveler would keep 50 cents of every dollar it takes in. The remaining 50 cents would be split among federal, state and local governments.
Sound too good to be true? Maybe, but Sutton has lined up some notable supporters. He’s assembled a board of eight directors that has about 90 partners, some of whom are leaders of the automotive industry, including a former vice president of General Motors, a top financial manager from Daimler-Chrysler and a lead production consultant from Ford. The Michigan state legislature endorsed the project in 2003.
Environmentalists are excited too. “All that money that’s getting spent to do something that is doing nothing but take us backwards in terms of technology for the [commuter] rail system that they’re proposing right now,” says Jim Griffin, the president of Global Green Alliance and the Green Earth Expo 2008 (May 15-18, 2008, at the Orange County Convention Center), “imagine if that same money did not have to be diverted there and was diverted towards those property tax and insurance issues. And then something that is built for the future comes in to take the place of that that’s 10 times more efficient: no pollution, no burden on the taxpayers.”
In recent months, Griffin and Sutton have pressed their case to local transportation and city officials, who they said reacted favorably. Queried about these meetings, city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh writes in an e-mail, “The city of Orlando is always interested in exploring the latest technology advances and how they could benefit the residents of Orlando.” MetroPlan Orlando spokeswoman Kelley Teague echoed that sentiment.
Members of Congress have been less receptive, Sutton says. He and Corbett Kroehler, an environmental activist running for Congress in District 8, say they’ve met with staffers from local congressional offices who seemed ambivalent toward the project. U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney’s spokeswoman Pepper Pennington says, “It’s a definite possibility that they met with us. We meet with hundreds and hundreds of constituents in [Washington, D.C.] and Orlando every year on every topic under the sun.” (Representatives for Reps. Mica and Ric Keller did not return phone calls.)
Sutton sees the Interstate Traveler as an easy sell. In his view, the formula is simple: Fewer cars on the highway means fewer greenhouse emissions, which is good for the planet. Roads will be less clogged. Excess clean energy will be produced. And taxpayers, in Florida and elsewhere, won’t have to pay for any of it.
“Why not have a perfectly operating, environmentally perfect, quiet, safe public transportation system that’s paying their community large amounts of money and not costing them a dime?” Sutton asks. “All they’ve got to do is just let it happen.”
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