The unreliable PRT says a lot about this University


When I was first considering West Virginia University, one of the first things I learned about Morgantown is that it is home to the PRT.

Pictures of Morgantown in spring with the PRT track snaking through the Downtown Campus adorned campus recruitment literature.

The PRT is emblematic of Morgantown and of WVU.

What, then, does it say about us that the PRT seems to be inexorably broken?

I am a graduate student in biology, so the Life Sciences Building on the Downtown Campus is my home.

But each semester, I have at least one class on the Evansdale Campus, and I use the Student Recreation Center at least a couple times each week, so I end up traveling between campuses quite a bit.

In the best of times, I can leave my office in LSB 20 minutes before class starts in Evansdale and be on time. That makes a total round-trip travel time of 40 minutes.

That's certainly not convenient, and multiplied across everyone who uses the PRT, it's a huge inefficiency, but it's not totally unreasonable.

However, at least three times already this semester, my daily PRT adventure to Evansdale has been delayed by more than 15 minutes.

I'm not talking about times when the platform is extra full, and it takes a couple cars to get going.

Three times in the first four weeks of the semester, the PRT has been down when I tried to use it.

Each time, I end up walking into class with my head hung low, muttering an apology for being late.

Sometimes I'll add, "Sorry, the PRT was down," but it feels like such a cliched, used-up, one-size-fits-all excuse that it's not even worth saying.

I teach Bio 115 labs, and the students are mostly freshmen, many of whom come to class from Towers via the PRT.

Hardly a week goes by that at least one student doesn't show up 10 or 15 minutes late saying something about the PRT.

I want to instill in my students a sense of the importance of being on time and how being late suggests a disrespect for the content of the class and the instructor.

Our attendance policy for the class requires that I impose a penalty on my students if they are more than 10 minutes late.

But I know it's often not their fault.

And worse, I can't tell who genuinely did leave on time and just get held up by the PRT and who just doesn't care enough about the class or have their act together to show up on time.

Should we expect students to leave an extra 15 minutes early with the knowledge that there's a decent chance the PRT will be delayed?

That would make my daily commute 35 minutes each way – 70 minutes round-trip – often for a 50 minute class. That seems unreasonable.

And it's not just students who suffer the consequences of the PRT.

Last week, a resource management professor had a meeting with a consulting firm downtown.

Being ecologically minded, he decided to take the PRT instead of driving.

But the PRT was down, and he showed up 20 minutes late, uttering the same excuse that I'm sure he's so tired of hearing from students.

As a result of this, people are more likely to drive, even when traveling a route serviced by the PRT. And the traffic and the air pollution get even worse.

Just a couple of years ago, the PRT received around $1.5 million to improve efficiency and reduce downtime. Was it even worse before that?

That the PRT is broken doesn't just mean reduced efficiency on campus.

Students learn more from what they see than what they're told. The PRT sets an example of a system that works most of the time, but it can't be depended on. Is that what we want to instill in our students?

The PRT has a long history in Morgantown, and it is culturally significant. It shouldn't be abandoned, but it needs to be improved. And it can be.

All sorts of mass transit systems all over the world face far greater loads and challenges than the PRT and perform with far better reliability.

We have some great engineering minds at WVU. Does anyone believe they cannot put together a plan to make the PRT more reliable?

WVU needs to figure out what it will take to fix the PRT. Maybe it just needs some adjustments. Maybe it needs to be rebuilt and modernized. Maybe it needs to redesigned altogether. Maybe it needs new leadership.

Whatever it will take, WVU needs to do an honest accounting of the problem and figure out how to address the issue.

Because at present, the failure of the PRT makes our University look bad. It interferes with classes, it sends the wrong message to students, and it hurts the reputation of whoever depends on it.

Oh, and one more thing. While researching this article, I went to the PRT website, which says that the "WVU PRT 2010 Master Plan (is) available for review."

But guess what? The file is broken.