Traffic Thicket

Next time you're sitting in traffic, look up.

Opponents of a proposed Phoenix mass transit system would like you to picture their own pie-in-the-sky people-mover -- an overhead sky-rail system, where a computerized chauffeur zips you along at 100 mph in your private SkyTran vehicle.

No unnecessary stops. No congested freeways or brown cloud of air pollution. And no sharing a ride with total strangers, some of whom might give you the creeps.

The fare would be about 10 cents a mile.

And the taxpayers' cost to build this futuristic system over the streets of Phoenix?

Absolutely nothing, thanks to private investors whom SkyTran backers say will pay for the whole thing.

One problem. SkyTran is the brain child of an inventor whose biggest accomplishments are a fire-breathing giant robot and a flying beverage can cooler.

That hasn't stopped transit opponents from boosting the project in the hope of derailing the Transit 2000 proposal that will go before voters next week. In recent weeks, on talk shows, in local debates, in letters to the editors of various newspapers and even in the official voters pamphlet, SkyTran is being touted as the ideal alternative to the Valley's planned light rail system.

At this point, however, compared to the painstakingly crafted Transit 2000 plan, SkyTran simply won't fly. The company, based in Southern California, has never built such a complex transportation system. The company, not to mention other firms trying to develop similar personal rapid transit vehicles, has no demonstration projects and no prototypes to showcase. In fact, all it has is a Web site with sci-fi illustrations of how such a system could work. Two-person pods, which resemble the front of an airplane, zoom along elevated monorail tracks, with passengers entering and exiting every half-mile at portals.

Douglas Malewicki is SkyTran's inventor and chief proponent. He has proposed a 1,500-mile system of overhead freeways that would span not only the Valley but the state. And he says he could build it for $1.7 billion. But first, he wants to build a quarter-mile prototype track in Phoenix. He promises to accelerate a SkyTran pod to 130 mph on that short stretch of track.

Malewicki says a Valley company, which he won't name, is exploring using the system to transport its employees to the airport. That project will prove that SkyTran is not some wild idea, but is based on existing technology, combining electricity and magnetic levitation, he says.

"We're not real, yet," Malewicki admits.

Although his Web site first identifies Malewicki as a "mildly sane" creature from outer space (complete with an illustration depicting this), his résumé reveals more serious educational and professional qualifications, including a master's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford University. Malewicki concedes he has no experience in civil engineering or public transportation. But he points to other of his inventions as proof he can deliver the SkyTran system for Phoenix.

Like Robosaurus, a 40-foot-tall, 30-ton, car-eating robot that has entertained spectators at car shows and other events, including drag races at Firebird International Raceway off Interstate 10 south of Phoenix. The robot, which is operated by a human hiding in its head, lifts cars, crushes them between its metal jaws, then spits fire.

Or Canosoarus, a small cylinder that slips over a beverage can to keep it cool, then can be turned into a far-flying variation of a Frisbee later.

Some of the inventions that Malewicki had a hand in do involve vehicles, but most are for record-book contests or pure entertainment value, like the Kite Cycle that appeared on the TV show CHiPs and is scheduled to be on an upcoming I Dare You: Ultimate Challenge on UPN.

SkyTran's Web site (www.skytran.net) refers to company "activity" in Arizona, Southern California and the National Park System. But those turn out to be simply proposals to bring the SkyTran system to those areas.

The city-sponsored transit plan set to go before Phoenix voters on March 14 is not as slick and sexy as the Jetsons-like SkyTran idea. But it offers immediate, tangible solutions -- improved bus service and a light rail system -- that represent the best thinking to keep the Valley from becoming one big polluted parking lot.

It's a tough sell. Past transit-tax measures have failed. And despite efforts to encourage telecommuting, car pooling or some other form of transportation, we remain devoted to our cars. Every day, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Regional Public Transportation Authority, motorists make 9.5 million trips in the Valley, traveling more than 62 million miles. Most of those trips are into, out of, or around Phoenix. Only about 1 percent of them involves some sort of public transportation.