Traffic solution in the sky, or just pie-in-the-sky?

Published January 3 2018
Updated January 6 2018

CLEARWATER — By the end of this year, a never-before-been-built, Jetsons-like pod car system will be ready to transport visitors through the sky between downtown and Clearwater Beach.

At least that’s what businessman Tom Nocera has been pledging to local TV news, radio, public officials and community groups for months.

"BeachTran proposes to launch before the end of 2018 the most technologically advanced and cost-effective solution to our already serious yet still growing beach traffic problem," Nocera’s website stated Friday.

"Yes we can break ground in 2018, have a system up and operational in 2018 and carrying passengers in 2019," he told the Tampa Bay Times last month. But after this Times article published online Friday, Nocera edited his website to say "BeachTran would like to break ground before the end of 2018."

His plan is to launch a system of SkyTran, a California-based company’s proposal for small, jet-like pods that would travel along an elevated guideway using magnetic levitation technology. That means in a span of 12 months, Nocera will have to:

• Commission an analysis of the Memorial Causeway bridges for state approval

• Hire engineers to create a master design

• Apply for and be granted right-of-ways from the City Council

• Have his proposal approved by the Florida Department of Transportation

• Complete an environmental impact study

• Oh, and also raise $45 million in estimated start-up and construction costs

"Is he going to be able to do all that in a year?" said Frank Domingo, senior project manager for international engineering and design firm Stantec, who’s not affiliated with Nocera’s project. "I’ve taken six months to get a driveway permit. It is complicated."

Nocera began pitching BeachTran, the local SkyTran project, as a solution to Clearwater’s traffic congestion in May 2016 with a presentation to the City Council.

A SkyTran passenger system does not exist anywhere in the world. The company is in negotiations to lease land at Kennedy Space Center to build a test track, but that agreement has not yet been finalized, Space Florida chief of strategic alliances Dale Ketcham confirmed.

SkyTran CEO John Cole and vice president Bill Ferguson declined to comment on the company’s relationship with Nocera or the Clearwater proposal’s time line.

But in an email chain responding to a Times reporter’s request for comment, Cole wrote to Ferguson: "This is getting out of hand. BeachTran cannot make any public announcements or meet with officials without our permission."

Nocera stands by his time line, saying once the engineering studies and design are completed, he expects actual construction of the lightweight system to be completed in a matter of months. He said he’s not concerned about difficulty in raising $45 million because he believes the GOP tax overhaul passed by Congress last month will embolden investors to finance transportation infrastructure.

Nocera said "we’ve got commitments," but no cash secured, toward the $45 million. He declined to name his potential funding sources but said no public money will be requested.

Nocera said once he builds the Clearwater system in 2018 and starts moving passengers in the first quarter of 2019, he plans to pitch BeachTran to connect to the Tampa International Airport in time for the 2021 Super Bowl.

But getting public buy-in could prove challenging.

The Clearwater system would not require formal approval from Pinellas County’s transportation planning agency Forward Pinellas because Nocera is not requesting public dollars, said executive director Whit Blanton.

But Blanton said he has seen only renderings of what SkyTran would look like. Without engineering plans or a formal proposal, he said he can’t firmly endorse it.

"I’d like to see what the actual plan is, because at this point there’s not really a proof of concept that we’ve seen," Blanton said. "I think there’s a long way to go. Any time in 2018 seems pretty ambitious to us."

Domingo, with the firm Stantec, said engineering plans alone for a large transportation project can often take more than a year, on top of environmental and structural studies.

He said the design process can also unearth surprises that slow the process, such as environmental issues, land ownership disputes or underground utility complications. Nocera has proposed five stations to board passengers along the 2.8-mile route, but because the engineering design has not been completed, exact locations are unconfirmed.

"Going through that process properly alone usually takes longer than a year," Domingo said. "I’m trying to think of a project where it went faster."

In order to get FDOT approval for the system, Nocera would have to go through an "unsolicited proposal process" and have the state evaluate the safety and environmental impact of the project, according to agency spokesperson Kris Carson.

The proposal process requires a $50,000 deposit and includes a 120-day advertisement period.

Nocera has not begun that process, Carson confirmed. Nocera said the analysis of the Memorial Causeway bridges for state approval is his first step, which will occur this month.

Mayor George Cretekos said in the planning for Clearwater’s transportation future, "anything is possible, but right now, I would say it is highly improbable that (SkyTran) would get done in a year."

He said he has been given no final data on where the system’s landing stations would be located and what city property would be involved. Cretekos said the City Council’s vote on granting right of ways would be, in effect, a judgment of the project itself.

Cretekos said city efforts to encourage visitors to utilize bus rapid transit and the Jolley Trolley instead of driving to the beach is a more practical solution for the short-term.

"I think we have to be realistic about this," he said. "I don’t see SkyTran .?.?. as a means of alleviating a lot of the traffic problems."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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