Sunday, July 22, 2018
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: The great gondola gallop in Pinellas

There's an old story. Many years ago, then-Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio, upon returning from a trip to Italy, appeared before the City Council to extol the beauty of the gondolas he had experienced in Venice. Wouldn't it be great, he mused, if the council would approve funding for a gondola to reside at Lowry Park Zoo.

Well, a council member asked, if these here gondolas were so wonderful why doesn't the city get two of them so they could mate?

And now it appears we may well be on the verge of a rabbit-esque gondola birth boom.

Last year, Carillon developer Darryl LeClair proposed a gondola-type transportation system servicing the greater metropolitan Toytown area.

And LeClair also has ruminated over the prospects of a gondola system linking downtown Clearwater with Clearwater Beach.

The need to find a better way to move people where the roads are more clogged than Chicago highways at rush hour would seem self-evident. If you want to visit Clearwater Beach tomorrow, you better leave now. With luck, you might get there by next weekend. Clearwater Beach is indeed quite lovely, if you can see any sand that isn't already taken up by a suntan lotion-lathered body.

In many respects, LeClair's gondola vision represents a microcosm of Tampa Bay's over-arching transportation challenges — too, too many people endeavoring to get from A-to-B on a finite expanse of paved roads.

LeClair, you could argue, is literally above all that — or at least he would like to be.

To realize the great gondolapalooza would cost an estimated $3 million to $11 million per mile to string up all the cables and get the cars moving. And if the Clearwater-to-Clearwater Beach experiment worked, well then it would be only a matter of time before the Tampa Bay region looked like the Spaghetti Warehouse with lines strewn all over Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

In a region seemingly incapable of solving its transit issues, a maze of wires seems like progress.

It is also true that when you try to create a better mouse trap it is only a matter of time before someone else comes along with claims of a better mouse.

This month, just as LeClair might have been envisioning ruling over his gondola empire, along came Pinellas County resident Tom Nocera to tut-tut over the developer's dreams of a cable car cartel.

Nocera has pitched a plan to the Clearwater City Council to install a futuristic skyTran system employing high-speed, elevated cars moving along using magnetic levitation technology. Or think of this as The Jetsons meet Blade Runner.

If skyTran became a reality, the engineer told the council, it would be capable of carrying at least 1,250 people an hour to the beach, which means visitors could find themselves cheek-to-jowl on the shoreline even more efficiently.

At the moment, the skyTran technology is being tested in a demonstration project in Israel. And Nocera did not provide any cost estimates.

And now that the great battle between gondolas and skyTran has been joined, other entrepreneurs may leap into the fray with a proposal to use a giant pneumatic tube system linking Clearwater to the beach. Perhaps a Star Trek-like transporter device beaming tourists from the mainland to Crabby Bill's.

Or why not a massive slide on the Clearwater side flushing patrons directly into the Gulf of Mexico. Wheeeeeee!

Then again, to save a lot of time and money, LeClair could work out a deal to have the gondola and the skyTran thingamajig mate. Wouldn't that be a sight to see?

Ah, you laugh, you smirk. Don't think for a moment some transportation geniuses are thinking to themselves: "Hey wait a minute …"

Alas, in Tampa Bay, that counts as progress.

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