Maglev is straight out of Dick Tracy's comic book world--the very idea of computer-driven trains magnetically hovering above cities and zipping along noiselessly seems absurd.
But what sounds like science fiction is actually being built in Las Vegas--by a company whose marketing chief, John Bivens, lives in Phoenix. In fact, he drives the closest thing to a maglev vehicle in the Valley: a Mercedes sedan with the license plate "MAGLEV."
The cruelest irony to harried Valley commuters is that Bivens has so far been unsuccessful in drumming up interest in his own city for magnetically levitated transit.
Ruefully, he describes himself as the ignored "prophet in his own country."
Before the ill-fated ValTrans mass-transit plan came to a vote last year (and was clobbered by voters), Bivens sought talks with Valley mayors and transit officials about maglev. He says he broached the idea in 1986 and 1987 and got good reception from some, including Glendale Mayor George Renner, but was rebuffed by Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard.
"I found it very difficult to talk to the mayor about this--in terms of his giving me time," Bivens says of Goddard.
"If it was, I'm sorry," says Goddard, who adds that he has talked to Bivens and is enthusiastic about the idea of maglev. "The only reason I might have been reluctant was we were hesitant to commit to a specific technology. We didn't want to get specific about technology, but, in retrospect, that might have been a mistake."
Goddard sounds entranced by maglev technology and says he could see a maglev system in Phoenix that would branch out from Sky Harbor Airport to downtown and then maybe the suburbs.
However, Goddard notes--with justification--that maglev is not a proven quantity in this country. The privately financed line being built in Vegas by Bivens' West German-backed company is, in fact, the first maglev system in North America.
In addition, the Vegas system, which is scheduled to start operating in 1992, is only a mile long--something similar in Phoenix would hardly solve commuters' problems. Goddard says no private company has laid a firm proposal in front of Valley officials. And if there were a proposal, the local governments would have to grant public right of way and zoning approval up-front while seeking a commitment that the company would also serve areas that "Anybody who says there is a private panacea that'll come in and magically build us a transit system is fooling himself," says the mayor.
Still, Bivens feels a little miffed that his company hasn't gotten much of a nibble locally. He says it's hard for his company to commit money to a detailed proposal if local officials don't make their own commitment to a maglev system.
He says he was told by officials at the Regional Public Transportation Authority, which cooked up ValTrans, to cool it on the maglev talk before last year's public vote. "We were asked by RPTA to not come forth with a plan," says Bivens. "They thought it might jeopardize the vote. That seemed weird." Not so weird when you consider that Larry Miller, then the RPTA chieftain, was trying to sell a more traditional rail system--similar to the one used in British Columbia, where he had worked before coming to the Valley.
Phoenix's transit director, Dick Thomas, has ridden the maglev in West Berlin and "loves the technology," but he says Phoenix just doesn't have the money or commitment right now to palaver with maglev companies. "It's their nickel," Thomas says. "We have nothing to offer. If we had money in the coffers, maybe it would be different, but it's very hard to do much when you don't have any money to put on the table."
Thomas acknowledges that, back when RPTA officials were trying to convince voters to approve the Valleywide ValTrans proposal, they considered talk of a maglev system "disruptive."
He points out that, unlike Phoenix, Las Vegas is "one of a kind," with a 24-hour-a-day "carnival atmosphere" and plenty of tourists more than willing to spend money.
In Vegas, Magnetic Transit hammered out a deal up-front with government officials and won the rights to build and operate a system. Bivens says negotiations have been tough, but in the Valley, with its numerous municipalities and bureaucracies, that would be even more difficult.
"Bureaucrats can kill you," Bivens says. "I know. I've been one."
The Vegas maglev system is radically different from the ValTrans "light rail" system.
The Las Vegas People Mover will feature train cars that permanently hover above a track, thanks to magnets embedded in their underbellies. Electricity will course through another set of magnets in a guideway beneath the motorless, driverless cars, propelling them at speeds up to 50 mph.
The system is so quiet that it will run through a new children's museum. The cars are so light, because they have no motors, that the elevated track will be far less bulky than an elevated freeway or train track.
There's no romance of the rails with maglev--the clickety-clack is missing. But so is the air pollution.
Patterned after a system already running in West Berlin, the mile-long People Mover is privately financed. Bivens' company, Magnetic Transit of America, Inc., will own the maglev line and operate it, in return for use of public right of way and the zoning approval to develop shops and restaurants at its stations.
The People Mover is a showcase for Bivens' company, which wants to prove that its West Berlin maglev system can work--and make a profit--in this country. And Las Vegas is now in the catbird seat--Magnetic Transit and a Japanese company are wooing the gambling capital for the rights to spend millions more on an expanded maglev system to serve the Strip.
Bivens, an urban-transit veteran who used to work for the Arizona Department of Transportation and was the first project manager for Atlanta's mass-transit system, hasn't given up on Phoenix.
"There's a crying need for mass transit here," he says, voicing the common opinion that the voters' rejection of ValTrans was a vote against that massive transit plan, not a vote against mass transit.
Bivens has refused to move to the Los Angeles headquarters of his company because he says he loves the Valley. And fellow commuters in north Phoenix do double takes when they see his Mercedes with the "MAGLEV" plate.
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It's no coincidence that Bivens drives a Mercedes-Benz. Magnetic Transit of America is owned by AEG, the West German equivalent of General Electric. AEG, in turn, is bankrolled by German auto giant and Mercedes builder Daimler-Benz.
Maglev really is an idea straight from the comic strip Dick Tracy. After all, it was Dick Tracy's wealthy industrialist Diet Smith who used to say, "The nation that controls magnetism controls the universe." But the system in Vegas may prove that it's more than science fiction.
Meanwhile, Phoenicians stew in traffic and smog, and Bivens is studying aerial maps of Phoenix to try to come up with a workable proposal he can take to municipal officials.
And while most Phoenix commuters slog through traffic, John Bivens still has the quietest ride in town. "But I'd rather really be on a maglev," he adds.