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Aerial transit proposals for Clearwater Beach no longer in forefront

SkyTran, a high speed, elevated, personal rapid transportation system, is apparently no longer in Clearwater's plans, at least not in the short term.
SkyTran, a high speed, elevated, personal rapid transportation system, is apparently no longer in Clearwater's plans, at least not in the short term.
Published Dec. 20, 2016

Times Staff Writer

CLEARWATER — Aerial transit has been a buzzword in talks about the city's transportation future for nearly a year, but momentum in bringing the technology to Clearwater Beach has slowed to a crawl.

The City Council agreed in May to pay consultants designing a downtown revitalization plan $60,000 extra to study locations where aerial terminals could be built, but now the concept has been scrapped from the plan altogether.

After unveiling the draft Imagine Clearwater plan Nov. 30, HR&A Advisors partner Cary Hirschstein said suggestions about St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair's gondola cable car system and the magnetic levitation system proposed by skyTran advocate Tom Nocera would be in the final plan coming February.

But because data on ridership and logistics Nocera submitted to the consultants was too vague and LeClair did not provide any hard data or figures at all, HR&A spokesman Kyle Parks said there was not enough information to analyze.

"It's just those ideas are not quite far along enough to be considered as part of this planning process," Parks said.

Planning and Development Director Michael Delk agreed officials do not have enough specific information to make decisions about the technologies. And although the city is open to having all modes of transportation be a part of future discussions, Delk said the Coachman Park area, which is the centerpiece of the Imagine Clearwater project, was not a suitable location for the infrastructure.

In the end, Delk said it did not make sense to pay the consultants $60,000 extra for the transit evaluation, on top of the base $378,000 contract, when they would not have much substance to work with.

"It's really difficult, if not impossible, to get a full assessment of what the infrastructure demands are for either one," Delk said. "They've not done ridership studies. Asking them to tell us how many parking spaces do you need, how many square footage of the building do you need. They're really not in a position to give that to us."

Representatives from LeClair's firm Echelon have not responded to repeated requests for comment. But the company began courting local city and transportation officials again late last year about a cable car to connect the mainland with Clearwater Beach after initially shopping the concept as a region-wide transportation system in 2014.

LeClair has met with officials in person and on the phone but has not submitted any data or blueprints that would become public record.

Apart from shuttling skiers over mountains of snow, gondola cable cars as mass transit systems have limited precedent in the U.S., although serious proposals are being considered in more than a dozen major cities. They are prominent internationally in places like Bolivia, London and Hong Kong, but only two American cities — New York and Portland — have fully fledged gondola commuter systems.

Nocera's SkyTran does not exist anywhere in the world but a demonstration system is being built on the grounds of Israel Aerospace Industries in Lod, Israel, according to the company's website.

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Nocera said the 12-page proposal with digital renderings he submitted to the consultants gives a clear direction on how the high speed, elevated, personal rapid transportation system that runs "jet-like" cars on magnetic levitation technology would work.

The proposal states: lift stations could be built as small as 18 feet by 40 feet; support posts would be 12 inches in diameter; cars would run up to 60 mph; could move at least 1,250 passengers per hour; and would cost $30 million to build.

"The public needs to be made aware it's not us holding up the process for the solution to come," Nocera said.

"We will be going forward with our plans to bring the SkyTran to Clearwater because it is the most viable, cost effective and taxpayer-friendly solution for the traffic congestion that has existed for years."

To build such a system, Nocera would need city and state cooperation to be granted right-of-ways and easements.

Forward Pinellas, the county's planning organization, has a study underway evaluating connectivity from Tampa International Airport to Clearwater Beach and mobility on Gulf to Bay Boulevard. Executive Director Whit Blanton said Forward Pinellas has been briefed by both Echolon and SkyTran but does not have enough hard data on either to move forward with the technologies.

"We are interested in it, we're looking at it, but we're kind of in the same boat as the city of Clearwater," Blanton said of aerial transit. "We're not taking the lead to evaluate it."

Last week the city approved the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's request to plan an intermodal center on a city-owned lot at Court and Myrtle streets to replace the existing Park Street bus terminal. The resolution originally stated the city and PSTA would work to include features into the design like "a possible cable propelled transit station," but before approval, City Council member Bob Cundiff suggested changing the wording to allow for "elevated transit" stations to be more inclusive of all technologies.

Although the city's highly anticipated waterfront revitalization plan will not include an aerial transit component, City Council member Doreen Caudell cautioned the technology "is not off the table yet."

She said local, regional and statewide officials are working together on boards and in various studies to build better transportation infrastructure in the area. In that process, she said, all forms of transportation should be considered.

"All modes are very important," Caudell said. "Bike share, waterborn, Uber, Lyft, elevated. We're trying to stop the silo because nothing will ever get done if we don't get these very important transit pieces of the puzzle together."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.