Brothers envision gondola at harbor

Elevated cable cars would run between Fells Point, convention center

December 31, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Call it crazy, even for Baltimore, but two-thirds of Inner Harbor visitors say they would gladly spend $7 to glide along the waterfront - up to 95 feet above street level - in a ski-lift-style gondola proposed for downtown, according to a new state study.

The survey, which predicts that as many as 1.9 million people would hop on the gondola every year for the view - not to mention the novelty - is encouraging news for Trey and Peter Winstead, who came up with the idea three years ago to ease traffic and carry foot-weary tourists along the harbor.

Far from a trend in urban transportation, gondolas are nevertheless getting a look in some cities as an alternative to streetcars and monorails, both of which gained popularity over the past decade. Portland, Ore., for instance, is expected to launch its newly constructed aerial tram this month.

"Once it's built, residents and tourists will wonder how they got around without it," said Trey Winstead, who is meeting with city economic development officials about the proposal. "Anytime you try to do something new, just like Harborplace, you're going to run into people who say you can't do it."

Winstead acknowledges that skepticism - that it would work, that it would be safe, that it would make money, that it wouldn't be an eyesore - is the biggest hurdle facing his out-of-the-box idea. The study, he argues, offers at least one answer: That people would ride it.

The study was paid for, in part, by a $38,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. Of the 1,218 people interviewed, 44 percent said they would be "very likely" to give the gondola a try and another 23 percent said they would be "somewhat likely." Tourists were slightly more willing than local residents to get on board, but the difference between the two groups was small.

As proposed, the $35 million, privately funded system would carry eight-passenger cable cars from the Baltimore Convention Center to the western edge of Fells Point, with two stops along the way - one at the World Trade Center and the other at Pier Six. At 12 mph, the trip would take about seven minutes. A day pass would cost $7.

"If it were here, I'd get on it," said Laura Mongelli, 31, standing near the World Trade Center. The Bethesda resident, visiting the Inner Harbor with her family, had done a lot of walking.

Critics abound. Some are concerned that the cable supports and the cars would be an unsightly addition to the skyline. Others speculate that interest among riders would fall off after the first few years. Those survey participants who said they would not ride the gondola offered a simple explanation: They'd rather walk.

"I think that's a little off the landscape that was originally intended," said Carl Stahlman, a 35-year-old Ellicott City resident visiting the Inner Harbor. "I think that would kind of throw off the whole backdrop."

The 60-page study was conducted by Baltimore-based Kittelson & Associates Inc., and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Surveys were conducted during peak foot-traffic times, such as when an Orioles game let out, as well as during nonevent weekdays.

Portland's 3,330-foot tram is already shuffling doctors back and forth from the Oregon Health & Science University's Marquam Hill campus. The $57 million system will be open to the public in mid-January.

A similar system has carried sightseers from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island in New York City for decades. In Pittsburgh, a funicular railway moves passengers up the side of an incline for a skyline view - though that system uses a cable to pull cars along tracks.

The Baltimore Lift, as the Winsteads call it, isn't the first time a tram has been proposed for Baltimore. City officials considered building an elevated people mover during the 1970s but ran out of money. The idea was revived briefly when Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened.

For now, the Winsteads are answering questions about design and safety and trying to get city leaders on board. M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp, oversees an Inner Harbor task force that heard the Winsteads' pitch a few months back. Brodie acknowledged skepticism, but said, "I think it's not impossible."

What intrigued him the most, Brodie said, is the idea of a device that can carry people from one side of the growing Inner Harbor to the other. As waterfront development continues eastward, he said, there might be a demand for a transportation system besides walking and water taxis.

"I think it was generally well received," Brodie said. "We peppered them with questions about how it would look, what are the economics. They have been following up."

The Winsteads' study estimates that the project would need 1.4 million riders a year to break even - less than the number of people who visit the National Aquarium or Camden Yards.

"People shouldn't write off ideas because they've never been done before," Trey Winstead said. "It will work extremely well for the city if people can get over that hurdle."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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