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Tampa Bay weather no worry for gondolas, experts say

The Memorial Causeway stretches across Clearwater Harbor. Clearwater and St. Petersburg officials are exploring gondolas, the aerial cable car system, as a form of public transportation. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
The Memorial Causeway stretches across Clearwater Harbor. Clearwater and St. Petersburg officials are exploring gondolas, the aerial cable car system, as a form of public transportation. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Feb. 21, 2016

CLEARWATER — Gondolas have suddenly become a thing in Pinellas County, as officials in both Clearwater and St. Petersburg are mulling the sky crawlers as an alternative to cars and buses.

Yet even if officials find a way to finance an aerial cable car system, and somehow cut through years of red tape, there's still the weather to consider.

Could a flying commuter system really work in the U.S. lightning capital?

Operations in Portland, Ore., and New York City are the only two comparable U.S. systems, and they are in more moderate climates. But gondola cable cars have operated for years in high winds and rains in Europe and South America.

"There are always ways to design it to run in high winds," said Oswald Graber, a consulting engineer who has built gondola systems across the world. "You cannot run a gondola in a lightning storm is the problem, you would have to shut down, but that is typically not for long."

Graber said gondolas can operate in winds up to 45 mph. Other experts put that closer to 60 mph.

Bobby Deskins, a 10Weather WTSP meteorologist, said the Tampa Bay area experiences thunderstorms with lightning about 100 days a year, with average wind gusts of 40 mph.

With those weather conditions in mind, Graber said gondolas can be built as mono-cables or tri-cables, depending on the infrastructure needs, travel distance and size of cabin.

Most run between 12 mph and 15 mph, hold eight to 10 people per cabin and have a cabin roughly every 200 feet.

They run continuously in a circulating system, slowing (but never stopping) at stations where riders never have to wait long for cars to arrive.

Because they are made up of boarding stations, cable cars, towers and cables, they are typically less expensive than most other transportation options, running about $3 million to $12 million a mile depending on the architecture. Light rail systems can average $36 million per mile.

Both Clearwater and St. Petersburg are checking out gondolas because of developer Darryl LeClair. According to Brad Miller, CEO of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, LeClair owns a ski slope out west that has gondolas.

St. Petersburg was one of 70 cities in the country this month to apply for a $40 million Smart City Challenge federal grant aimed at innovative transportation solutions. The city is pitching a tri-cable gondola to run south along Fourth Street from the Gateway area, 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.

St. Petersburg transportation director Evan Mory said the city worked with LeClair and his real estate company Echelon on the grant application. Mory said the city used years of research LeClair had done on gondola technology, which all points to a feasible transportation system in the Florida climate.

"It's not a danger for lightning strikes or any of the wind you'd receive in a normal storm," Mory said. "It would start swinging and become uncomfortable before it would become dangerous. Just like the highway patrol makes a decision when to close the (Sunshine Skyway) bridge in certain wind situations, there'd be a decision to close down that system."

Clearwater transportation officials have discussed plans with LeClair for a gondola system to connect downtown with Clearwater Beach. The city is currently waiting for LeClair's firm to submit preliminary design plans, according to Paul Bertels, the city's traffic operations manager.

An Echelon representative could not be reached for comment.

PSTA's Miller said the next step for any regional gondola system would be a feasibility and analysis study. He said weather conditions are not an exclusionary factor and that "modern technology can handle that."

While Portland and New York have the only two gondola systems dedicated to urban commuting, Miller pointed to multiple ski resorts that operate gondola systems up and down slopes — often in severe snowstorms and high winds.

But funding and regulation complications may put up a tougher fight than any summer thunderstorm.

"Ten years would be optimistic at this stage," Miller said.

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