Daniel Ruth: Gondolas, or more beach traffic jams?

Published Feb. 4, 2016

If you're thinking of enjoying a relaxing day at Clearwater Beach, better leave now. You might get there by Monday. And if you're lucky, you might find a parking spot by Wednesday. And you might get home by Saturday. And yes, we're having way big fun now.

There is certainly no doubt Clearwater Beach is a destination location for both tourists and local residents, recalling that old Yogi Berra line, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.''

Think of the gazillions of people flocking to Clearwater Beach as trying to cram 10 pounds of, uh, sand into a 5-pound bag. And thus the city big shots of Clearwater have endeavored to come up with ways to ease traffic congestion in and out of the area.

A private water taxi has started carrying people from the mainland to the beach. Efforts to encourage car-pooling have been made. To be sure, that old standby — building more parking garages — is under way to accommodate the crush of cars. And let's face it, nothing underscores the charm of Florida beaches more than another towering parking garage.

What makes a genius? What makes a visionary? What makes a leader? Confronting a problem and coming up with innovative, outside the box solutions. Enter Darryl LeClair — the Einstein of traffic.

The prominent real estate developer gazed out across the bumper-to-bumper mosh pit of vehicles trying to get to Clearwater Beach, and much like the apple falling on Newton's noggin arrived a possible solution.

And that is how LeClair became the Galileo of Gondolas.

LeClair has proposed building an aerial gondola cable car that would transport people high above the Clearwater Memorial Causeway to the beaches. If you think this is a really stupid idea, fine. Go take a drive to the beaches and see how long it will take for you to regard LeClair's gondola plan as a stroke of brilliance.

Other cities, most notably Portland and San Diego, have developed aerial gondola systems to complement local transit projects. And it is estimated that gondola costs average between $3 million and $11 million per mile compared to $36 million per mile for a light rail system. Would you prefer sitting in traffic for hours to get to Clearwater Beach and paying extortionist parking fees? Or would you rather board an aerial gondola for a few minutes-long ride above the congestion and be on the beach enjoying your day while others continue their refugee-like search for a parking space?

We could be onto something here. LeClair just might have set off an explosion of creative alternatives.

Giant catapults. Visitors are given a parachute and then strapped into a massive catapult flinging them across the way to the beach. Oh, c'mon! Where's your sense of adventure?

Blimps. For a small fee and their signature on a legally notarized hold harmless form tourists board a blimp and while it hovers over Clearwater Beach they rappel to the sand below. Now we're getting somewhere.

The LeClair gondola proposal comes as the very earliest stages of developing a water ferry experiment between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. This is what happens after years — decades, really — of neglect to craft a coherent roadway/light rail transit system tying together both sides of Tampa Bay. Gondolas start to look really good.

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LeClair has mused that if the Clearwater Beach gondola is successful, perhaps it could be expanded to ease congestion elsewhere on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

Silly? Outlandish? Over the top? Unworkable?

Maybe. Does anybody else have a better idea? If so, they've been keeping it a secret for a very long time.