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Turning from toll roads, CTRMA eyes gondolas

Thursday, September 8, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A high-flying idea to provide an alternative to driving through Austin could soon get off the ground. Sort of.

On Wednesday morning, members of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board of directors gushed over a proposal to install an aerial tramway that would ferry riders from the University of Texas campus through downtown and all the way to Slaughter Lane in South Austin.

CTRMA Deputy Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein even said he would likely bring an item forward at the board’s next meeting to let the members decide whether to fund a viability study on the proposal.

It was a stunning outcome for anyone familiar with the local transportation policy scene on whose edges self-described creative technologist Jared Ficklin has for years expounded his vision of the Wire, capturing imaginations but never gaining any traction.

The latest iteration of his proposal, dubbed Wire One, would string 8 miles of cable across 19 stations through the heart of downtown and southward almost to the city limits. With highly frequent arrivals and departures of the 10-person gondolas moving at the speed of a bicycle, Ficklin said passengers could depend on the service without having to rely on a schedule.

The service, he said, would operate 19 hours a day, and stops would be spaced every half-mile or less, depending on the given density of an area.

Using what he called “high-level heuristics,” Ficklin estimated that Wire One’s ridership could reach 4.87 million passengers per year, or 13,342 per day. He based those figures on a rough formula that includes percentages of commuters, tourists, short-term rental licenses and large festivals; ridership on Capital Metro’s No. 10 bus; and a percentage of residents living within two miles of the proposed route.

“A lot of transit thinking quickly turns into engineering thinking, where it’s like, ‘Here’s a technology, here’s where it can go, hopefully people will ride it there,’” Ficklin told the Austin Monitor. “And this was, ‘Where do people want to go, where would be a route that they could incorporate in their lives, what’s the technology that would go there that they would be willing to get on?’”

Ficklin suggested that Capital Metro could cease operating the No. 10 and instead shift its resources to new lines that could feed passengers to Wire One.

Capital Metro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel told the Monitor that the transit agency has been included in the discussions about the CTRMA’s sudden interest in Wire One and its potential for transforming mobility in Austin.

“As far as people-moving capacity, we often see assertions of this type. However, until an unbiased study is done, we aren’t able to assess these types of claims,” said Hummel.

Ficklin speculated that the total cost of installing Wire One’s stations, towers and plazas could reach as high as $555 million. According to a brochure, the annual maintenance and operation costs, including attendants at each of the 19 stations, would be between $3 million and $6 million.

“Who can pay for it? I don’t know. That might be why I’m here,” said Ficklin.

“I think it’s a fabulous idea. I think it’s interesting and certainly worth exploring,” Board Member Charles Heimsath said after Ficklin’s 20-minute presentation.

That sentiment was shared on the dais by Chairman Ray Wilkerson and board members David Armbrust and Nikelle Meade.

Heiligenstein has the prerogative to initiate a viability study of the project on his own, but he indicated that he would put the choice before the board on Sept. 28. He estimated that the cost of that broad kicking of the tires would be $15,000.

He also suggested that the Texas A&M Transportation Institute be tasked with handling the study. A spokesperson for the institute was unable to determine before Thursday morning whether any researchers there have experience with aerial tramways or what a potential viability study could entail.

Indeed, what Ficklin is proposing is largely unprecedented. There are currently two active aerial tramway systems in the United States: one in New York City and one in Portland, Oregon. Both are short lines servicing only two stations and span geographical barriers that inhibit other modes.

While one of Wire One’s supposed advantages is its ability to add transportation capacity without removing car lanes, its stations and towers would require the occupation of some right-of-way. On cramped South First Street, that could mean the loss of sidewalk space.

“My biggest concern is you’ve got to have city buy-in,” Heiligenstein stressed to the board. “We as an agency do not have rights to the right-of-way inside the city limits. That is their right-of-way.”

Meade agreed but said that shouldn’t stop the CTRMA from simply examining the viability of Wire One. “There’s no harm in exploring that,” she said. “I don’t feel like we need a mandate from the city to do that.”

Mayor Steve Adler seemed to concur with that notion on Wednesday afternoon.

“Our mobility crisis is so severe that any and all solutions should be evaluated,” his spokesman Jason Stanford told the Monitor. “The mayor thinks the public would want their transportation leaders to evaluate all ideas, no matter how novel.”

As far as courting city officials goes, Ficklin said he has attempted to reach out to Council Member Ann Kitchen to present Wire One to the Council Mobility Committee (Kitchen did not respond to the Monitor’s request for comment). And with less than two months left for voters to decide on the city’s transportation bond proposal, Ficklin said he has no plans to aggressively push his vision for Wire One on officials or the public.

“We don’t want to just drop this on people’s heads,” he said.

Clarification: Following the publication of this article, Ficklin contacted the Monitor to clarify that he estimates project costs could run as low as $287 million. $555 million is his highest estimate.

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