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Aerial Tram Proposed For Downtown Transit

San Diego County officials are examining the viability of establishing something along the lines of an “aerial gondola” that would link downtown San Diego with Balboa Park, giving riders a panoramic viewing experience in the process.

The county Board of Supervisors recently voted to allocate $75,000 from the regional Neighborhood Reinvestment Program for the San Diego Association of Governments to conduct a feasibility study on what would

essentially be a new form of public transit.

Supervisor Ron Roberts, who proposed the study, said potential costs have not been determined, nor have details including how the project would be paid for and what agency or governmental entity would oversee it.

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A potential site for a boarding platform, he said, is a parcel at the foot of Sixth Avenue in downtown San Diego, currently owned by the Metropolitan Transit System, near the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego Convention Center and an MTS-run San Diego Trolley station.

The sky tram could be publicly or privately operated, and offering corporate naming rights could be another way to help pay capital and operating expenses, the supervisor said.

“There are probably about 92 different ways that this could potentially be approached, to get it all to fit together,” said Roberts, who was recently elected to his sixth and final term — due to term limits — as a county supervisor.

More Than Pie-in-the-Sky?

Roberts is to looking get some information and guidance on feasibility by year’s end from consultants that will be hired by SANDAG, a regional planning agency that addresses matters including transportation. He said a sky tram could help enhance the visitor experience downtown and help lessen longtime parking and traffic congestion issues at Balboa Park.

The supervisor said he has been germinating the idea since at least 2006, and he’s discussed it informally with local public officials and architects over the years. He now wants some clarity on whether the concept is more than just pie-in-the-sky.

“I’ve got four-and-a-half years left in office, and I wanted to see if we could actually do something on this,” Roberts said.

While a downtown sky tram would face limitations such as height restrictions, partly due to airspace restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration near the airport, he said a local gondola could have elements of successful sky trams in places like Singapore and Palm Springs. Locally, San Diego Zoo operates a sky tram that spans the zoo property only.

Roberts said an ideal system would be one capable of transporting about 1,500 paying passengers per hour between the two locations. That metric would figure into how many cars the tram would have and what size those cars would be.

The ride would span about two miles, with the tram from downtown arriving at Balboa Park in a central gathering spot, such as the area near Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

Enthusiasm and Skepticism

Roberts said that if the concept is found to be financially feasible, he is confident that the business community will get behind it, and he has received informal support from organizations like the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

Like others in the local community over the years, Joe Terzi, CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, has expressed enthusiasm to Roberts for the idea, combined with skepticism about its ever coming to fruition, at least in the near future.

But if it is built, Terzi said a sky tram could potentially expand the downtown experience for visitors, especially those briefly in town for conventions, while alleviating some lingering parking and traffic concerns in and near Balboa Park.

“The ride itself, and the views, would be the main part of the experience,” Terzi said.” It would be pretty cool.”

Funding for the tram feasibility study is coming from the county’s Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, which over the past decade has provided grant funds to county departments, public agencies and nonprofit organizations. Most of the funding goes toward one-time projects geared toward environmental, educational, cultural and other community needs.

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