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St. Petersburg developer shares vision of sky ride over the bay

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Published:   |   Updated: January 10, 2014 at 08:32 PM

TAMPA — The St. Petersburg heavy hitter who stepped into the debates over the Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium and St. Petersburg’s Pier apparently has another solution to a regional problem: aerial cable cars over Tampa Bay.

Darryl LeClair, chief executive of real estate firm Echelon LLC, has been sharing his vision with business and government leaders around the Bay area for at least a year. LeClair didn’t return the Tribune’s calls or an email this week, but a few people who’ve seen his conceptual drawings say he’s pitched suspended cable cars, called trams or gondolas, as a form of transportation.

At least one of his drawings shows the gondolas airborne over the waters of Tampa Bay.

LeClair’s idea has received more than a little skepticism in the community, but that doesn’t appear to be stopping him. This week, the Tribune spotted him displaying slides of aerial gondolas in a closed-door lunch meeting with businesspeople at Tampa’s Oxford Exchange restaurant and office building.

“The concept is not so out there that it wouldn’t work,” said local transportation activist Ronnie Duncan, who saw one of LeClair’s presentations. “If you’re not in a hurry, the sights and views would be great.”

LeClair is a former Florida Power Corp. executive who made his name developing the Carillon office park along Ulmerton Road. He has also become something of a St. Petersburg statesman in recent years by offering solutions to that city’s most contentious issues. On his own dime, he hired architects to create elaborate plans to renovate the Pier and build a Rays stadium on his company’s land in Carillon. Neither plan moved forward, but St. Petersburg leaders praised his willingness to push the issues forward and spend his or his company’s money.

His latest vision may be his most unusual. Some time early last year, LeClair visited Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill’s office and talked to him about cable cars suspended from a wire and traversing Tampa Bay. LeClair told him the system would use European technology and be modeled after similar aerial gondola systems now used in South America.

Medellin, Colombia, has such a system of enclosed gondolas that connect to the city’s rail lines, according to the website Gondolaproject.com, operated by a gondola advocate. Singapore uses gondolas to connect the mainland to an island filled with resorts and theme parks called Sentosa Island.

To be sure, aerial cable cars are most common at European and American ski resorts as ski lifts. Locally, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay operates a cable car skyride that takes people across the park.

Merrill said he isn’t sure whether LeClair’s plan was more focused on tourism or mass transit, and he said LeClair hasn’t moved forward with any formal proposal for the county.

LeClair also met privately with Paul Steinman, the region’s district secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation, to talk about the gondola idea and other transportation topics. Steinman told LeClair he didn’t have enough information about the gondola system to have an opinion, Steinman said.

LeClair also spoke to the Tampa Bay Partnership, an economic development group, Duncan said. Duncan found the idea intriguing as a way to transport people who aren’t especially in a hurry. But he got more skeptical when LeClair started touting gondolas as a cheaper form of mass transit than rail, which was like comparing apples and oranges, Duncan said.

“Where he’s coming from is the notion that you could build a gondola system and do so at a cost significantly less than rail connectivity,” said Duncan, a former Pinellas County commissioner.

In fact, using aerial cable cars for transportation isn’t a new idea in the United States, but it hasn’t caught fire, either.

Outside of ski resorts, New York has moved people from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island via an aerial tram suspended from a cable since 1976. On the other side of the country, Portland, Ore., debuted its aerial tram in 2007 and just celebrated its 10 millionth rider. Two trams pass each other throughout the day as they move people 3,300 feet from a medical school on a hill, Oregon Health and Science University, over a major interstate highway and to OHSU’s expansion campus.

Critics have attacked Portland’s tram because of massive cost overruns — what had been a $16 million to $18 million project ballooned into more than $50 million one — and because riders can look down and see people’s backyards. The city of Portland has tried to solve the latter problem by adding some frosted glass on the bottom of the trams. As for the cost overruns, Portland spokesman Dylan Rivera said the project needed some major reengineering, including a new landing station.

“The $50 million tram project was a very different project than the $18 million one,” Rivera said.

It’s not clear exactly what style of cable car LeClair envisions, because he didn’t to respond to the Tribune’s inquiries. A few businesspeople who witnessed his presentation at the Oxford Exchange this week also declined comment.

Mark Bee, who leads the U.S. division of the Austrian ski lift and cable car maker Doppelmayr Garaventa Group, said big tram-style cable cars, such as New York’s, can carry more than 100 people per trip and travel up to 2,000 feet per minute. Tram systems typically operate only two cars, which pass each other throughout the day along parallel cable lines. So, if it’s a long route, riders may have to wait at the station for long periods until one of the two cars arrives.

Smaller gondola-style systems operate numerous cars that run continuously. That cuts down on people’s wait, which may work well for public transportation. Still, people may feel less safe in small gondolas than bigger trams, Bee said. Gondolas may travel up to 1,400 feet per minute, he said.

LeClair may have to do a masterful job of lobbying to get anywhere with his aerial cable car idea. Steven Polzin, mobility policy research director at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, said aerial cable cars are good options when trying to move across mountainous terrain, but that’s not an issue in the Tampa Bay region. If there’s a place for them here, it may be in transporting tourists to some of Pinellas County’s barrier islands, he said.

“They typically are attaction-oriented or event-oriented, they aren’t normally every-day transportation.” Polzin said.

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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