Metro Atlanta transit pitch: flying pods, lots of questions

Transit X founder Mike Stanley has proposed a private transit system in metro Atlanta, with passengers traveling in four-person “flying pods” hanging from overhead monorails that would run alongside roads. The proposal faces new questions with revelations that Stanley is a convicted sex offender who changed his name to distance himself from his past. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Five metro Atlanta governments bit on entrepreneur Mike Stanley’s idea for what some thought might be too good to be true. His Boston-area company Transit X proposed developing affordable transit using flying pods that would hang from overhead monorails and be entirely privately funded and owned.

Officials in Henry County and several southside cities agreed in recent months to negotiate access to public rights of way along roads for a future system. Some mentioned being impressed by Stanley’s background as an MIT graduate.

What apparently hadn’t come up in their discussions was another part of Stanley’s past. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned in the course of its reporting that Stanley is a convicted sex offender involving young girls and that he changed his name five years ago to distance himself from that history.

The revelations have added new questions about Transit X’s chances for attracting private investors and building government goodwill for a transit proposal that already faced hurdles.

Stanley has been pitching his concept across the U.S. and in other countries, gaining at least some interest in places like Cincinnati and the Boston suburbs, in addition to metro Atlanta.

“It’s shocking to hear this information,” said Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman.

The city is one of the local governments that signed a memorandum of understanding with Transit X ahead of negotiations about using rights of way. Hallman said the agreement hadn’t locked the city into anything or promised any public funding. He said he now plans to discuss the latest revelations with the city council to determine next steps.

Bruce Holmes, a Henry commissioner who had been among the most vocal in expressing interest in Transit X and even visited the company in Massachusetts, expressed surprise when a reporter told him about Stanley’s background. He later texted that “Henry County is no longer considering moving forward with Transit X. We are investigating details related to the company and its owner.”

Chris Leighty, the city manager of Lake City in Clayton County, said elected officials will determine what to do next after he was told of Stanley’s criminal past. Of Transit X officials, he added, “you are asking us to trust you on your reputation and your background.”

The mayors of College Park and Forest Park didn’t respond to requests for comment related to specifics about Stanley’s past.

Many questions unanswered

Counties around Atlanta are wrestling with traffic congestion and weighing transit solutions, including a vote Tuesday in Gwinnett County about whether to approve a 1-percent sales tax to fund expansion of MARTA into that northside county.

Part of the appeal of Stanley’s idea was that it was portrayed as a privately funded alternative to cars even as other communities contemplate more traditional public transit.

He proposed building a monorail system elevated on poles. Passengers would sit in four-person enclosed, lightweight pods that would hang from a rail and move, fully automated, with power generated from solar panels. Riders would get on and off almost anywhere they wanted along the system. Stanley suggested the system could be constructed quickly and at a relatively low cost, with passenger fares similar to existing mass transit.

Transit X founder Mike Stanley recently showed potential investors his proposal for a private transit system in metro Atlanta, with passengers riding inside small pods hanging from overhead monorails that would run alongside roads. The proposal faces new questions with revelations that Stanley is a convicted sex offender who changed his name to distance himself from his past. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

The Transit X proposal has been promoted in metro Atlanta by Stanley and local representatives of the company. One of those representatives, J.T. Williams Jr., serves on the board of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which approves allocations of state and federal transportation resources in metro Atlanta.

Williams wrote in an email to the AJC that he doesn’t anticipate a conflict of interest over his role with Transit X because it plans to have privately financed projects and GRTA only deals with government financed ones. He said he isn’t an employee of the company but would stand to make money if the project moves forward. Williams said leadership changes at Transit X involving Stanley “should solve the problem of his personal issues.”

Kari Watkins, a Georgia Tech professor who focuses on transportation systems, questioned whether a Transit X system would have enough capacity to meet needs. And she suggested some communities might not want its visual impact along streets.

She cautioned communities about selling one private company broad access to land along roads: “Don’t tie yourself to some sort of technology that is not yet proven.”

So far, Stanley’s only example of Transit X pods hanging from a rail is on a 40-foot-long test section inside a building in Leominster, Mass. He said he is trying to raise private funding for an outdoor test track that could be operational later this year in Ohio.

Entrepreneur changed name after 2010 jail sentence

Stanley, a 50-year-old Massachusetts resident with a background in software, said he came up with the idea for Transit X in 2015.

A year earlier he had legally changed his name from Michael D. Plusch. Under that name he pleaded guilty and was convicted on four counts of indecent assault and battery on children under the age of 14. His victims were nine-year-old girls, according to media reports at the time.

A Massachusetts judge sentenced him in 2010 to two and a half years with 18 months to serve. Stanley said he actually was incarcerated for 15 months, with credit for good time.

But when he got out, his background made it difficult to get jobs and find apartment managers willing to rent to him, he said.

"It turns out if you start a company people don't check your background as much as if you try to get hired," Stanley said.

Both his new and old names are listed on the Massachusetts sex offender registry as a level 3 offender, he said. Level 3 offenders are deemed to have a high risk of re-offending and posing a high degree of danger to the public, according to the registry site.

Stanley asked the AJC not to divulge his past. The revelation, he said, could prevent local governments from working with him and would keep him from getting private funding: “No investor is going to invest.”

“I did my time. This is a second chance. And I hope that people would respect that,” he said.

Stanley later said that, because the AJC intended to report on his past, he stepped down as chief executive officer of Transit X, with no one taking that title for now. Transit X has about 50 workers, about 10 of them full time, though none are paid, he said.

Stanley said he remains the company’s majority owner. He said that might change if he adds investors. He said eight early investors have collectively put less than $1 million into the venture.

If Transit X plan proves feasible, it could be a major benefit to Georgia, said Larry White, who leads the Ritz Group, which connects entrepreneurs and investors. The group helped organize a small gathering last month where Stanley presented his idea to potential local investors.

White voiced surprise when told about Stanley’s background. In an email to the AJC he wrote, “I, and most others have never experienced a ‘new discovery’ of this magnitude. For most, it will be ‘shocking’ and an obvious deal breaker.”

How we got the story and why we’re reporting it:

The AJC began researching Transit X and its founder after several local governments signed agreements to negotiate public right-of-way access for the company’s proposed private transit system. In the course of reporting, the AJC determined the Transit X founder had changed his name after being convicted of sex offenses involving children. Although the Transit X founder has already served his sentence, the AJC decided to publish in the interest of transparency. Such information, whether made public now or later, could influence investors’ willingness to fund the project and affect its viability for local governments.

In Other News