By Mark Lisheron | Texas Watchdog
AUSTIN – When one of the most innovative cities in America takes its first crack at mass transit you can bet it won’t be buses, trains or streetcars.
No, Round Rock, Texas, elevation 709 feet, is thinking about a gondola system, like those crawling up and down the ski slopes of the world.
While the average mope on a Round Rock street might ask, ‘Are you really serious?’ the mayor of the city, Alan McGraw, is quick with a reply. “Why not?”
“The problem with government in general is the thinking is not very innovative,” McGraw told Texas Watchdog. “I am fascinated at this being a viable transportation alternative.”
In keeping with the kind of thinking Forbes Magazine recognized when it named Round Rock the second most innovative city in America in 2010, McGraw said he got the idea a couple of years ago.
Every time McGraw turned around the city was faced with a right-of-way issue that, invariably, cost money and time. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if you could plan over the top of everything already here?
The creative nucleus at Frog Design in downtown Austin were thinking about it, too. They put together a proposal for Austin. They couldn’t get an audience in spite of ongoing transit troubles, in particular with the city’s little loved commuter train to and from Leander.
Round Rock has no corresponding troubles because it has no bus system, no train, no entrenched transit union. But with a population of about 105,000, the city is one of the fastest growing in Texas.
And so McGraw welcomed Frog Design to City Hall last week for a multimedia presentation that had a lot of Austin and no Round Rock.
The presentation was a little light on specifics. After realizing most commuters would not be wearing ski clothes and would be scudding along in the Texas heat, Frog’s factoring in of climate control for gondolas quadrupled its low-end estimated cost from $3 million to $12 million a mile.
That figure could go as high as $24 million a mile, a figure that compares favorably to the $100 million Austin is estimating it will cost to complete a mile of urban rail. Which doesn’t compare favorably to much of anything.
At a top speed of 15 mph, the gondola system can be ruled out as a regional transportation alternative, McGraw said. At fewer than a dozen people to a gondola, dangling one behind another in a loop, there remain the problems of traffic density and of maximizing pickup and dropoff opportunities.
Michael McDaniel, the principal designer of what he likes to call “The Wire,” said Round Rock has a big advantage over Austin in that the city isn’t saddled with the political baggage of existing mass transit.
“We think it would be pretty hilarious that Austin, the city that likes to keep things weird, wouldn’t do this, but Round Rock, the place that keeps things normal, would,” McDaniel said.
Neither is McDaniel worried that the residents of a suburb in a state known for its individual vehicle culture would be reluctant to park their pickup trucks somewhere on the cable circuit and grab a gondola.
The designers have even toyed with an elaborate design allowing for door-to-door service, a sort of ski in and ski out system, he said.
“It’s really up to the city to decide what they want to do,” McDaniel said. “Round Rock would be starting fresh, from the ground up.”
McGraw’s undimmed enthusiasm begged the question, could there be an ulterior motive for considering an untried transit method with technical hurdles that threaten to make it costlier and less efficient than a bus or a train?
There is the coolness factor of having the only gondola system of its kind in the country, McGraw said. But he promised that wouldn’t color any cost/benefit analysis the city would need to do.
Although the Frog presentation never mentions it, could the gondola system open the door to the state’s first indoor skiing park? McGraw freely admitted he likes to ski. One of the planning team at Frog Design came up with the gondola concept, in part, because he is a ski bum, McGraw said.
There are stranger places to plan such a complex. In 2009, Snow Sport Entertainment Ltd. was all set to build Texas Alps, a $70 million complex as part of a proposed $1.6 billion World Villages of Grapevine, right next to the Grapevine Mills Mall, when the world economy collapsed.
The investors, including former Texas Rangers hitting star Rafael Palmeiro, later filed for bankruptcy.
Could the Texas Alps arise from the gently rolling hills of Round Rock? Alec Sohmer, who headed the original Alps project, told Texas Watchdog his group had no plans for Texas, and a deal for a similar skiing complex in Georgia has stalled.
Sohmer wasn’t aware that anyone else was moving ahead on a skiing village in Texas.
But are you sure, Watchdog asked McGraw. “No, not at all,” he said, amused at the question.
At the end of the presentation, McGraw told Frog Design the city’s line of communication would be open, nothing formal, nothing set for an upcoming agenda. McGraw, he said, is always ready to listen.
“It’s open-ended. I like the idea of having another arrow,” he said, mixing his skiing and archery metaphors, “in our quiver of transportation.”