Aiming high downtown: transportation with a view

Cable cars would glide up to 95 feet above streets

September 08, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN STAFF

Baltimore isn't known for its skiing, and tourists don't flock to the Inner Harbor for snow-capped mountains. But two entrepreneurs are looking past the obvious and toward the sky. They're looking for ski lifts.

They see eight-person cable cars soaring up to 95 feet above city streets. They picture sightseers and commuters, their faces pressed against Plexiglas windows for a view. They think, with a little luck, that a ski-lift style gondola might be the next big thing in urban transit.

Crazy? Maybe. Maybe not.

Baltimore brothers Trey and Peter Winstead are getting attention - and money - for their three-year-old dream of stringing a cable-car system a little more than a mile, from the Baltimore Convention Center to the western edge of Fells Point.

The $30 million project - the latest in a long line of transit ideas proposed for the area -could ease downtown traffic, the Winsteads say, and provide a respite for tired tourists. At 12 mph, the high-wire trip would take 6 1/2 minutes.

Gondolas would stop at the end of Thames Street, Pier Six, the World Trade Center and the Convention Center. The brothers envision a $6 day pass.

"This idea was a pipe dream," said Peter Winstead, 27, who describes himself as the one who grounds in reality his brother's out-there ideas. "But we also thought maybe it could work. While it's not the typical way to do transportation in urban environments, it could really pay off."

Last month, the city Board of Estimates sponsored a $38,000 state grant for the Winstead brothers to study potential ridership for the enclosed, climate-controlled cars.

Construction costs would be raised from private investors, the brothers said.

A similar system shuttles tourists from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island in New York City, and Philadelphia has poured the foundation for a lift that would run to Camden, N.J., though that project has been stalled for years.

The Baltimore Lift, as the Winsteads call it, would be distinctive in its style and in the mix of tourists and commuters its creators would hope to attract. Twenty-two towers would hold the cable and 97 cars aloft.

"It's long overdue," said Bob Brown, 48, a Hyatt Regency sales manager who lives in Baltimore. "Of course there would be people willing to use it."

Even if Baltimoreans accept a downtown cable car system, the approval of a bevy of planning and transportation officials - which ones is not clear - would be required.

Baltimore's zoning code, not surprisingly, is silent on gondolas.

Questions remain about the design of the supporting towers and who would inspect the system. Also unclear is what would happen if people chose not to ride.

"I think we'd use it because we're tourists, but if I lived here I don't think I'd be digging it," said Greg Hawkes, 48, a Yorktown, Va., resident, as he walked with his family near the Inner Harbor's Power Plant.

"It could be kind of an eyesore."

Assessing the system's feasibility and potential use, which the Winstead brothers are doing now, is critical, said Andrew Frank, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp.

"It's a very intriguing idea as a way of moving people east to west in a short time period," said Frank, whose agency supported awarding the grant.

Before the BDC spends money on a gondola system or even backs the concept, Frank said, the Winsteads must show that it can be built and can draw riders, overcoming the skepticism resulting from elaborate transit ideas proposed for the harbor that have failed.

City officials pitched an elevated "people mover" during the 1970s, but the plan fizzled when funding ran dry. A similar idea came and went in the early 1990s when Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened.

But the Winstead brothers, nephews of former state Transportation Secretary David Winstead, are determined to build the system in Baltimore, and their sales pitch attempts to refute some of the criticisms.

A gondola, they say, would cost less to build and to operate - about $3 million a year - than the cumbersome elevated-track proposals of the past. and, unlike a monorail, a cable car has no visible horizontal structure to obstruct views.

The cable, from a distance, would be all but invisible. The system would run on an 800-horsepower electric motor and would be quiet and emission-free.

Baltimore architect Klaus Philipsen said gondolas have a chance in Baltimore and elsewhere. Philipsen, who founded the firm ArchPlan, said people shouldn't dismiss it just because the idea didn't come from a government office.

"It could be done in a way that would not disturb the skyline, and that would be rather attractive," said Philipsen who, with other members of Baltimore's chapter of the American Institute of Architects, reviewed the proposal this year.

"I would recommend that one takes it seriously."

Detroit, Syracuse, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., are considering similar gondola systems.

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