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Originally published February 23, 2014 at 7:27 PM | Page modified February 24, 2014 at 1:33 PM

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Commute by gondola? Kirkland may be up for the idea

Unpredictable public-transit solutions from Sound Transit and King County Metro are prompting Kirkland to explore innovative commuting alternatives such as air gondolas.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Visions of traveling by gondola usually include floating through Venice or approaching a freshly powdered ski slope, for most Americans — not getting around Kirkland.

But that could change sooner than you might think.

Antsy for affordable and green transportation alternatives, City Council members, the city manager and the mayor have started exploring the addition of air gondolas into its public-transit mix. Because the city may have to wait decades for Sound Transit to extend light rail along the Cross Kirkland Corridor, Mayor Amy Walen said the city is looking for quicker and cheaper transit alternatives such as the gondolas to use in the meantime. Fickle funding for King County Metro services has made the search even more urgent.

“We’re anticipating a lot of population growth here, and I’m afraid that growth will create problems Interstate 405 can’t handle,” Walen says. “The sooner we can get some other kind of transit option up the better.”

Although using aerial gondolas for regular public transit is rare in the United States, their usage around the world has ballooned recently. They’ve become more popular in European countries such as Italy, Germany, Portugal and France. In South America, there are more than 50 gondola transit systems either being planned or built, according to Creative Urban Projects, a firm studying cable-car projects worldwide.

At an advanced transportation symposium the city of Kirkland organized and held at Google’s Kirkland campus earlier this month, Steven Dale, founding principal of Creative Urban Projects, emphasized that more American cities should be seriously researching the value of such systems.

One major attraction to the systems is that they can be built relatively quickly. A 12-mile route being built in La Paz, Bolivia, is expected to open this spring, less than two years after construction began.

The systems also are generally cheaper to construct: Depending on the contractor, constructing poles and stringing up cable for the routes can cost about a third of what it costs to build a light-rail or subway route, according to one designer trying to get Austin, Texas, to build a gondola system.

“This isn’t an idea that’s been around 50-60 years and never gotten any traction,” Dale said at the symposium. “It’s the fastest-growing transit technology in the world at this moment.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Portland has a 7-year-old aerial tram that runs between the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital and the city’s south waterfront along the Willamette River. With an average daily ridership of 3,700, the tram welcomed its 10 millionth rider in January.

Despite the tram’s popularity now, Dale said it is regarded as a “black sheep” gondola project because political problems and the expensive tram model ended up costing about four times the original construction estimate.

The Victoria and Vancouver, B.C., areas are studying the integration of gondola routes into existing public-transit networks. The technology hasn’t gotten as much traction in Seattle since route ideas were pitched in the past few years by Hal Griffith, owner of Seattle’s giant new Ferris wheel, as well as Matt Roewe, of VIA Architecture, and Matt Gangemi, known locally among transit wonks as Matt the Engineer.

Air gondolas built by companies such as SkyTran were one of many innovative transit options introduced for discussion and further research at the small, invite-only Kirkland symposium, which was attended by U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, local transportation experts, real-estate agents and the Kirkland City Council.

Robert Baertsch of SkyTran described how pods containing about four seats each could collectively move more than 11,500 passengers per hour in each direction at predictable speeds.

When Kirkland City Councilman Dave Asher started discussing the gondola idea with City Manager Kurt Triplett a few months ago, he said the intention was to build a connection between the city’s downtown and the Cross Kirkland Corridor, but he has since realized it could be much more.

Asher hopes such a transit option could help foster denser living situations along the Cross Kirkland Corridor, which will include biking and pedestrian paths as well as an easement for future light rail. He expects those who would take the route will be some of the 1,000 employees Google is expected to hire and locate at a new expansion campus being built alongside the corridor.

Looking at how the costs of the Portland Aerial Tram unexpectedly exploded made Asher skeptical of using gondola routes at first.

“I called Triplett and said, ‘Well, can that idea,’ ” Asher said. But after further research, he said he’s back to being open-minded about integrating aerial transit into the city. “That [Portland] one was uncharacteristic, and there are options that are not as high-cost.”

While designer Michael McDaniel pitched his gondola project to Austin, Texas, last year via a TED Talk, he said the $550 million spent on 5.5 miles of an Austin surface-rail project could have built more than 14 miles of continuously moving, air-conditioned gondola routes that showcase beautiful views of the city.

So why hasn’t even one American city jumped on the urban-gondola bandwagon yet? The cost of insurance for the city that pioneers the first system in this country is one of the biggest reasons, according to Kirkland’s economic-development manager, Ellen Miller-Wolfe. That cost would likely go down after one U.S. city successfully incorporated a gondola system.

“There are plenty of cities that want to be second in line to do this,” said Miller-Wolfe.

Kirkland is hoping that companies such as Google might be interested in a public-private partnership to help fund such transit alternatives. Google public-affairs manager Darcy Northnagle told symposium attendees that she and other Google employees are excited about the transit options Kirkland is considering.

“A detailed conversation hasn’t taken place yet, but they’re definitely one of the partners we’d love to discuss this with,” Walen said of Google.

The Kirkland City Council also approved a Transportation Benefit District earlier this month that would allow the city to ask voters if they would approve taxes or other proposals to help pay for more transit services within the city.

Asher acknowledges that any aerial-gondola plan could meet strong resistance if any part of a route mars residential views or privacy. But he believes routes could be placed in nonresidential areas and along arterial streets. Another problem is that, as futuristic as the designs are, Creative Urban Projects says the average speed for existing gondola systems is about 10 miles an hour.

Other transit options Kirkland learned about included driverless cars, LevX’s lightweight magnetic levitation trains and CyberTran’s computer-controlled ultra-light-rail trains.

Asher says another idea being discussed is paving an express busway in the corridor easement where Sound Transit could eventually build a light-rail track.

“We’ll have time to do further analysis, but it’s still worthwhile to look at what might be,” Asher said.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.



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