In bid for $40 million federal grant, St. Pete looks to gondolas, Tampa to smart technology

Published Feb. 13, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg is going for the unconventional and fanciful: gondolas.

Tampa chose a more earthbound approach: infusing projects with gadgetry.

Both cities are among 70 applicants vying for the $40 million "Smart City Challenge" federal grant that emphasizes alternative and innovative transportation.

Close on the heels of Clearwater's flirtation with a mode of transportation commonly associated with amusement parks or the Alps, St. Petersburg's application dubs its sky-crawling proposal Aerial Cable Propelled Transit.

But, we're talking gondolas, which raises the question: Really?

Evan Mory, the city's transportation director, made a persuasive case.

A gondola system is cheaper than rail, Mory said. Also, buying out property owners isn't a problem because there is little land needed, he pointed out. Best of all, he added, whereas other cities are all about smart cars, driverless cars and the like, St. Petersburg can stand out.

The city submitted its application to the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this month. Finalists will be announced in March, the winner in June.

St. Petersburg's proposed gondola line would head south along Fourth Street from the Gateway area than head west along First avenues N and S, with a spur to Tyrone Boulevard and on to Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach. Another spur would go south along 34th Street through the Skyway Marina District and end at Eckerd College.

"Some other cities go down with subway systems," Mory said. "But that's not feasible here. And our predication is that a lot of the applications will be focused on driverless or connected vehicles. Our idea is not as mainstream."

Mory said St. Petersburg isn't copying Clearwater, which talked with developer and idea man Darryl LeClair recently about gondolas to Clearwater Beach. St. Petersburg was talking to LeClair about gondolas for a couple of years, he said.

In Tampa, they're trying a different tack, by not proposing as one city official put it, "a big, shiny project."

"There's no gondolas," said Christina Barker, special assistant to Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Instead, the "Smart Tampa" initiative would use technology, crowd-sourcing, sensors, data from networked vehicles and apps for projects to improve safety and give residents, drivers and officials real-time information about transportation conditions and options.

Tampa's proposed projects include:

• a free downtown shuttle consisting of five low-speed, autonomous electric vehicles for short trips around the urban core. The shuttles would connect to buses, Tampa's streetcar, bike share and water taxis.

• a smart parking system that would use sensors in parking lots and garages to direct drivers straight to open spaces.

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• designating areas for shared electric vehicles from Uber, Zipcar or Lyft, with parking and more charging stations for electric vehicles, solar charging stations and a pilot project for a specially equipped road that would charge electric vehicles while parked or driving.

• launching an automated-vehicle pilot project on the reversible toll lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. This would build on a project already under way with support from a $17 million federal grant that the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority landed in September for a connected-vehicle program.

"We feel that having that pilot project going on in the city of Tampa is definitely an advantage to us," said Jean Duncan, Tampa's director of transportation and stormwater services.

Contact Charlie Frago at Contact Richard Danielson at