ST. PETERSBURG — The ideas weren't exactly from Marty McFly's milieu, but even St. Petersburg developer Darryl Leclair expressed some incredulity over his involvement with a project presented Thursday at the Forward Pinellas Transportation Technology Forum.
Two presentations argued that new modes of transportation — cable car gondolas and aerial transit using magnetic levitation — could come to Clearwater in the near future.
"How does a guy like Darryl end up here?" said LeClair, CEO of Echelon. "We started exploring all the different types of transportation systems around the world . . .(I) thought, 'Whoa, this is better than what we've been looking at. . . . It was one of those 'Hmm, could this be too good to be true?' "
Leclair and skyTran advocate Tom Nocera have been in discussion with Clearwater and transportation officials for more than a year about their ideas for aerial transit.
LeClair turned over his presentation to Steven Dale, president of Creative Urban Projects, who speaks to organizations, companies and groups about cable-propelled transit.
"This isn't just fiction right now," Dale said as he spoke of 150 existing models used across the world. "This is actual."
The proposed project would connect Coachman Park to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to Clearwater Beach. The track would be 1.9 miles long, travel at 15 to 20 mph, with a frequency of 30 to 60 seconds between cars and could transport 2,500 to 5,000 people per hour per direction, Dale said. Travel time would be 8 to 10 minutes, and the project is estimated to cost $50 million to $75 million. Once all permissions were granted, the system could be operational in 18 months to two years.
Dale said the model could be profitable. In Bolivia, he said, tourists pay $13.35 while locals pay $0.35 in fares. The tourist fee subsidizes the local fee, and Dale said the reverse transport from Clearwater Beach to downtown Clearwater could be the more profitable portion.
Nocera's presentation offered an alternative in which passengers would travel in two or four-person units transporting up to 1,800 people per hour. The system uses a different technology, passive magnetic levitation. Each car has a lift capacity of 1,200 pounds, and if the seats were removed could be used as emergency vehicle transit, he said.
The technology has never been used, but one project in Abu Dhabi's Yas Island is expected to break ground next year, and a project in Tel Aviv is in the works.
Nocera said he believes the pilot project could be launched by 2019 and would cost $40 million. Each ride would cost $4. He said he hopes to expand, including to Morton Plant Hospital, St. Petersburg College and by 2021, Raymond James Stadium in time for the Super Bowl.
The next steps, he said, would be conducting bridge and feasibility studies before requesting the right of way from the city.
"We want to continue with a free enterprise solution to transportation," Nocera said.
Dale said the gondolas could operate in conditions up to winds of 60 to 65 mph.
Equipping it with lightning protection would be "relatively off the shelf stuff," he said.
Nocera said his system would suspend operations when the Sunshine Skyway bridge is closed and store vehicles in hurricane-resistant hangars.