Wear: Austin gondolas surface again as an alternative to rail or buses

I loved the gondola ride at Six Flags Over Texas when I was a kid. Just you and a couple of other people, whisked out of the roundhouse in a pod for a peaceful five-minute glide 40 feet up in the air.

Gondolas were a pretty sweet ride at certain ski areas too, back when I lived close to mountains and was doing that sort of thing. And I took the much larger “aerial tram” in Portland, Ore., a couple of years ago, the one that runs between the river and a medical school improbably located 500 feet above on the side of a hill.

But gondolas as mass transit in Austin? Especially when no other North American city has decided to take a flier on it as an alternative to buses or trains?

The time for at least cursory consideration, and by an unlikely agency for such a mission, appears to have come. All of it based on “heuristics,” and spurred by Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board, a sober body of seven establishmentarian individuals who normally talk only of toll roads, had an item on its Sept. 7 agenda for a presentation by Jared Ficklin on Wire One, a potential “urban cable” line on South First Street.

I didn’t think I was familiar with Ficklin, a partner and “lead creative technologist” at Argo Design, or his proposal. But it turns out I was.

I had written in December 2012 about Austin and airborne gondolas (after first determining that we weren’t talking about Venetian-style canoes on Lady Bird Lake) after some outside-the-boxers at Frog Design threw the idea out there. I talked to one of the team that had proposed the Wire, an entire system of Austin gondolas, a principal at the company named Michael McDaniel. It appeared it was as much a provocation as it was a serious policy proposal.

Later, I watched a TED Talk video on the suggestion, featuring McDaniel and another Frog designer: Ficklin, as it turns out.

WATCH: Can urban cable really ease city congestion?

Ficklin has moved on to Argo now, as has urban cable. He has narrowed the plan to an initial 8-mile line on South First, the one he considers most feasible, running from Slaughter Lane and then, once it crosses the river, on Guadalupe Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Under his proposal, the 10-person gondolas would be suspended on cantilevers from poles planted in the existing city right of way, or perhaps from U-shaped structures extending over the street, with 19 elevated stations. They would run 19 hours a day on short intervals, with a minute and a half or less between the “climate-controlled” vehicles. At about 12 mph, getting from Slaughter to downtown would take about 40 minutes. He foresees a capital cost of $290 million to $550 million, annual operating costs of $6 million in the beginning and ridership of as much as 13,000 a day.

All of these numbers are based on those heuristics I mentioned above. Yes, I had to look up the word as well after hearing Ficklin use it a couple of times in his 28-minute appearance before the mobility authority board.

It means, essentially, industry rules of thumb. Or as Ficklin himself terms it at one point in his presentation: WAG. The “w” stands for wild and the “g” for guess. You can fill in the rest.

Ficklin acknowledges that he isn’t a traffic engineer, or an engineer of any kind. His college degree from the University of New Mexico was in marketing, he told me later, and by trade he is now a designer.

As such, he sees urban cable as a multifaceted product, one designed to address a specific set of challenges: Austin’s bad-and-getting-worse traffic; the lack of room for road expansion in the urban core; the presence of geographic and human-made barriers, such as freeways and Lady Bird Lake; a low-taxation Texas philosophy that makes doing massive infrastructure (other than roads) difficult; and an electorally demonstrated lack of enthusiasm for passenger rail in Austin.

Urban cable, Ficklin argues, addresses many of those, and at a much lower per-mile cost than light rail’s $100 million and up. Because of the short time between gondolas, he postulates that it would overcome the “friction” associated with having to consult a bus or train schedule. And he says tourists would be drawn to it and the inevitable selfies to be taken as it crosses the lake in the front lap of downtown Austin.

Of course, Wire One has its deficits as well.

For one thing, no city wants to be first at trying something big. Yes, there are the Portland and Roosevelt Island, N.Y., trams, but they are each about 3,000 feet long and have just two stations. There are a few other limited systems worldwide that he can point to, including a three-line aerial tram in Medellín, Colombia. But one of those is a tourist line, and the other two are meant to reach people on steep hillsides that are difficult to serve with buses.

For another thing, vehicles that carry just 10 people are on the lower end of “mass” transit. And those supporting poles and periodic stations likely would require right of way currently devoted to sidewalks. And then there is the efficacy of those WAG figures. A lot to study.

So why is the mobility authority looking at this? Board members David Armbrust and Nikelle Meade sponsored putting the Ficklin item on the agenda and spoke warmly of the idea during the meeting, but Ficklin said he never spoke to them. Instead, he talked to Shea, whose Commissioners Court appointed Armbrust and Meade to the authority board. Armbrust said that Shea has been pushing the idea to him for a couple of years.

“I’m not sure what they were waiting for,” Shea told me. “I just think the region needs to look at every possibility, and it’s got to be cheaper to run a wire than it is to build a bridge or a tunnel.”

At any rate, after Ficklin’s presentation, a majority of the mobility authority board supported spending up to $15,000 on a “viability” study of the concept, a sort of quick analysis of the idea. The board will take an official vote later this month on doing that study, officials told me.

A true engineering study of its feasibility, however, would take much more, as much as $1.5 million, Ficklin said. And no one is committing to that at this point. Just the $15,000, and even that will be split three ways with the city of Austin and Capital Metro. Mad money, in other words, for all of them.

We’ll see just how mad in a few months.

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