Future of Richmond solar train still in limbo

CyberTran model test track Photo by Sofia Melo

CyberTran model test track. Photo by Sofia Melo.

When CyberTran International first moved to Richmond in 2011, the solar-powered light rail startup was the darling of the city.

Enthralled by CyberTran’s vision to shuttle people around in futuristic driverless pods powered by the sun, the city council voted almost unanimously to spend $20,000 to lobby Congress to fund the project. In return, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the city, promising to bring 20,000 manufacturing jobs to Richmond.

Fast-forward five years, and the two sides are at war over just how much progress the company has made, and whether the city has done enough to support CyberTran’s vision.

In July, an article published by local news organization Post News Group alleged that Richmond mayor Tom Butt was trying to kill the project, claiming that Butt refused to spend city funds or provide letters of support for the company. In the article, Dexter Vizinau, president of CyberTran, was quoted saying, “Panic is setting in because we are so close to funding, so there is a push to discredit [our system].”

An hour later, Butt responded in an angry article on his personal blog. In the post, Butt said that he has always provided non-monetary support for CyberTran. He just didn’t believe in pouring taxpayers’ money into the company.

“What gets to me about CyberTran is the way they twist the facts or make-up facts to support their agenda,” wrote Butt. “I’m getting a little tired of it.”

At the heart of the clash lie issues that many cities are struggling with. What should the future of urban transportation look like? How much should it cost? And, most importantly, who should pay for it?

Light rail transit systems are increasingly popular in many cities because they are considered more reliable and relatively less expensive to build compared with conventional rail systems. But they also operate on an exclusive track, which means that an entire new system must be built from scratch, which makes them costly. That puts pressure on local and regional governments, which have traditionally been responsible for paying for public transportation projects.

The conflict between Richmond and CyberTran illustrates the tensions that arise when new transit systems cannot develop as quickly as policymakers expect.

Butt said in an interview with Richmond Confidential that he felt betrayed by CyberTran.

“They’ve been, you know, sort of pulling the wool over people’s eyes in Richmond and making promises that they never intended to keep,” he said.

Vizinau believes that the city is trying to play it safe. “In this industry, no one wants to be first. Everyone wants to be second,” he said. “No one in the transit industry wants to take a risk.”

Back in 2011, CyberTran chose to set up its headquarters in Richmond because it found a willing partner in the city. The company’s initial plan had called for an office in Oakland or Alameda, but it hadn’t been able to win either city’s support.

Richmond, for its part, was attracted by CyberTran’s grand vision because the cash-strapped city had long struggled with an inadequate public transportation system. Connections to Bay Area transit systems such as BART and the AC Transit bus service were miles away for some residents.

Public transit will become crucial as the Bay Area’s population continues to rise. The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Contra Costa County alone saw almost an eight percent population increase from 2010 to 2015, which was nearly double the rate of growth statewide for that period.

In recent years, the city had taken active steps to improve its situation, building more bicycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly paths. City officials thought that if CyberTran’s vision were realized, it could propel the city as a leader in municipal transportation.

“The idea was that it could be something that was innovative and also something that was beneficial to the city,” said Bill Lindsay, Richmond City Manager.

But the honeymoon period was short-lived, as CyberTran struggled to get its project off the ground.

Its biggest problem was money. Without it, it hasn’t even been able to hire engineers. Vizinau said that it took three years just to lobby lawmakers in Washington to set aside money for a competitive federal grant program for “innovative transit projects.” The so-called 5312 program is listed on the Federal Transit Administration site and is waiting to secure federal funding.

Vizinau said that it would cost about $15 million to build a scaled model of the rail. Transit expert Dr. Wayne Cottrell said it would be impossible to guess the cost of laying CyberTran tracks in Richmond because CyberTran’s technology is the first of its kind. But a similar project by Mountain View, Calif. firm Skytran is projected to cost about $10 million per mile, a tenth of the cost for more traditional systems.

Frustrated by the slow pace of progress, Richmond’s enthusiasm for the project and the company waned.

“There probably hasn’t been as much movement as people would have wanted,” said Ben Choi, a manager at Marin Clean Energy. Choi, who is also running for city council in November, added that expectations had been high when the city and the company first entered into a partnership.

Lindsay said that the advent of self-driving cars has also changed the situation. A Department of Transportation report estimates that driverless cars will become commercially viable by 2020, and companies like Tesla and Uber are already planning driverless ride-sharing services.

The city likes the idea of such vehicles because they wouldn’t require costly new infrastructure, and car-hiring services like Uber and Lyft could operate them independently, without financial assistance.

“Conceptually [CyberTran] could still make a lot of sense, but if anything can be done as efficiently and more cheaply then that’s where the investments are made,” said Lindsay.

The mayor’s frustration over CyberTran came to a head during a city council meeting back in June, when Vizinau clashed with Butt over a request to use city facilities for free one night. Vizinau said he wanted to host a town hall to educate residents about the impact that an upcoming county tax measure could have on the company.

If passed, Measure X could raise almost $3 billion through a half-cent increase in the Contra Costa County sales tax. The money would be earmarked for street repairs and improving public transit.

In a video of the meeting, Butt and Vizinau clashed over whether or not CyberTran currently had any funding to shore up its technology. Vizinau admitted that the company was still in the process of finding funding, but he argued that the passage of Measure X could bring cash to the project.

Butt told him that there was no specific language within the bill that would guarantee the company funding.

“If there is a measure, I can tell you that CyberTran isn’t in it,” said Butt at the meeting.

Vizinau shot back, “Not if you have anything to do with it.”

Since the heated exchange this summer, Vizinau said that he has nothing against the mayor and that he just wants to concentrate on getting the project off the ground.

“I’ve got a tough job, so I’ve got thick skin, and so I’m not going to engage in a tit for tat,” said Vizinau.

Butt, on the other hand, said that he was disenchanted with the company after the showdown.

“I came to conclude that these guys are just not to be trusted,” said Butt.

Last week, CyberTran partnered with two groups at the University of California, Berkeley to apply for the 100&Change MacArthur grant. The competitive grant would award $100 million to any company that can solve a critical issue facing the world. The grant is separate from the aforementioned Federal Transit Administration grant.

If the company wins the grant, two of UC Berkeley’s transportation programs—Partners in Advanced Transportation Technology and the Institute of Transportation Studies—would provide the researchers and engineers needed to realize the project.

Vizinau remains determined to get the project on its feet. “I just have to keep moving forward,” he said.

8 Comments

  1. Some of the most brilliant engineers in the world developed CyberTran. It is a disruptive technology in the true sense of the word. We hope that Richmond plays a part in its commercialization..

  2. Marc Gottschalk

    I have known the CyberTran team for several years and spent several years working in alternative transit (Proterra Electric Buses). What they are proposing to do is incredibly difficult. There has not been a truly new form of public transportation in decades. The US woefully underfunds its systems and has fallen well behind the rest of the world. I admire them for dreaming and pushing passionately to try to bring this to reality. They could have taken the easier path and invented an app instead. To criticize them for over promising or underdelivering completely fails to understand the challenge of what they are trying to do …

    • FuzzmanX

      Based on your statements, someone should have been more critical right from the start. You are defending them because their ideas aren’t practical. That makes no sense at all.

      • Marc

        The system they are proposing is practical, cost efficient when built at scale and technologically sound. The problem with any new type of capital equipment is getting the prototype funded. The Apollo space program would have failed your test and a number of other high capital cost programs that only governments are willing to undertake in the name of progress.

  3. Angryyoungman

    If this is a proposal to power any type of vehicle with solar cells on the vehicle, it’s a pipe dream given the laws of physics and current solar technology. Even if energy capture could be quadrupled from current levels, it wouldn’t be enough.

    If it’s a proposal to string wires like SF Muni to a solar farm, it’s straightforward engineering and not that novel — but it is horribly expensive.

    Either way, Burt is right to refuse funding. One Solyndra bust for the East Bay is enough.

  4. FuzzmanX

    This is Theranos with solar cells.

  5. Eduardo

    Driverless ride sharing services do not reduce the number of cars on the road. Mass transit is the only way to do that and a cheaper form of mass transit make sense. With CyberTran we are not only taking cars off the road, we are doing so with a cheaper system that pays for itself with the generation of solar power while providing Point to Point transportation eliminating all those stops between where you might want to go.
    Although Mayor Tom Butt may have lost enthusiasm, it would be wrong to say that Richmond has.

Comments are closed.