No green light for gondolas above the streets of Austin


Proposal pitched an 8-mile line of cable cars from South Austin to UT.

Agencies say initial study found that such an urban cable car system is better suited for “niche” uses.

But supporter says report “indicates there are no substantial barriers and … a great number of benefits.”

Austinites who were looking forward to making their commute via gondola might be out of luck.

After reviewing an analysis of the Wire One Austin urban gondola proposal, the city of Austin, Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority concluded Friday that they won’t move forward with planning such an unconventional mode of transit.

“We’re not saying that it has no future or has no role in Austin’s mobility,” said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development. “But we are essentially saying that … there’s more work to be done before it could really be considered.”

RELATED: Four things to know about gondola pitch

The proposal pitched last year by Argodesign would consist of an 8-mile, 19-stop line on South First Street running from Slaughter Lane, crossing Lady Bird Lake, then following Guadalupe Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A rough estimate puts the price tag between $290 million and $550 million.

The city and the two transportation agencies agreed in September to split the cost a $15,750 viability study, which was prepared by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

After reviewing that study, the agencies wrote a letter concluding that such an urban cable car system is better suited for “‘niche’ applications and not as a primary means of moving people or goods as a part of a regional network or along a major corridor.”

Jared Ficklin, who dreamed up the Wire One plan, had the opposite reaction to the study released Friday.

“This report is fantastic, actually,” he said, adding he was surprised the agencies weren’t moving forward. “Most cities would take a report like this, that indicates there are no substantial barriers and states there are actually a great number of benefits, and move to a feasibility study.”

Ficklin guessed that the decision came down to cost. Officials have estimated that a more detailed feasibility study could cost about $1.5 million.

“It basically states we don’t have a way to pay for a feasibility study, but we would be really happy to consider one if we could find a way to pay for it,” he said.

RELATED: Why gondolas surfaced as Austin transit alternative

One of the agencies’ concerns was that the proposed gondola system would be the largest and longest in the world.

“While this is not a fatal flaw, it does raise additional concerns about operational viability,” the letter reads.

Ficklin said that was “splitting hairs.” He pointed to a system in La Paz, Bolivia, which has three, 6.2-mile lines.

“We’re not increasing the scale to the point where it’s unproven,” Ficklin said. “We’re only going to be incrementally larger than La Paz, which is amazingly successful.”

Other concerns included securing the right-of-way, potential conflicts with Capitol view corridors and possible impacts on other city transportation projects, as gondolas would have to be added to the regional transportation plan to be considered for federal funding. Ficklin agreed those issues needed further study.

Austin City Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, who sits on the Capital Metro board, said in an emailed statement Friday that while he was glad that the agencies are looking into every possible solution, the report didn’t come as a shock.

“Personally, I don’t think there will be a transportation silver bullet,” Renteria said. “The answer is going to be a multi-modal mix of walk and bike trails, buses, and hopefully one day a robust rail system.”

RELATED: Entrepreneur pushes for ‘personal rapid transit’ for UT

Ficklin said he hasn’t given up hope on finding political support for his idea. While he hadn’t ruled out the possibility of private funding, Ficklin said he was optimistic he could persuade the city of Austin to be “a little more open to high-capacity circulators,” rather than commuter traffic.

Hemingson said the group doesn’t want to be a “naysayer,” but the agencies have a responsibility to make sure new ideas are carefully vetted.

“We didn’t see anything that just said overwhelmingly: ‘This is going to transform transportation in Austin,’” Hemingson said. “And so our conclusion at this point was the onus to further prove the validity is on the part of the proposer as opposed to the part of the agency.”

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