SANTA CRUZ -- A forty year dream to build a gondola lift aerial tram from downtown Santa Cruz to the UC Santa Cruz may become reality after Santa Cruz County's transportation agency received a $32 million grant from a foundation controlled by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.


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Officials from the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission and the University worked quietly for six months with the Orbit City Foundation to update an old gondola plan found by staffers. Zuckerberg founded the Orbit City Foundation in January 2012 to actualize his vision of futuristic transportation choices for the San Francisco Bay Area.

Transportation Commissioner Neal Coonerty was visibly giddy as he and other commissioners announced the $32 million gift from Orbit City. The cash is contingent on successful completion of the environmental review process and approval of the project from the city of Santa Cruz, County Supervisors, UC Santa Cruz, the Coastal Commission, and other state agencies.

Planners described a series of towers from the Santa Cruz METRO bus terminal on Pacific Avenue. The aerial tram will cross Highway 1 west of River Street and fly over Harvey West. Riders can enjoy a view of nature as they cross over Pogonip Park before entering the UC campus near the Lower East Field. The system terminates on Hagar Drive at Cowell College. Santa Cruz METRO plans to consolidate the campus portions of routes 10, 12, 15, 16, 19 and 20 into a shuttle to transport students from the gondola station to other parts of the campus.

Tower locations, stations, and route for Santa Cruz gondola lift. Blue bus symbols show proposed station locations. Green markers show towers. Map courtesy Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.

Santa Cruz METRO operations director Cyrano Agyro said, "Although we're eliminating several campus routes, the new gondola will allow riders to travel from anywhere on the campus into town much more quickly than they can now. Because the individual cable cars don't need operators, we can run them continuously for less cost." Agyro explained operators are needed only at the stations.

"Unlike the half hour headways we have now, a gondola will swing by every six to twelve minutes, and our shuttles will operate on a similar schedule. We'll do this for less money than we spend now running 40 foot coaches to campus every half hour."

Frequency equals freedom

"Right now, you wait up to a half hour for a bus to take the 20 minute trip to METRO center downtown. After the gondola lift becomes operational, you wait two minutes, take a five minute ride to the gondola station by East Field, wait another two minutes, then take another five minute ride on the gondola to downtown. Your 40 minute trip will take only less than 15 minutes because frequency and connections equals the kind of freedom we expect in modern transportation systems."

The aerial trams, towers and machinery will be supplied by a Swiss company that builds similar systems for other public transportation aerial trams around the world. Each of the two cars have a capacity for up to 40 people, with level floor boarding for those with mobility assistance devices such as wheelchairs, hooks to secure up to five bicycles, and even external storage for surfboards.

"The inability to accomodate surfers is a major limitation for our system right now," said Agyro. "We hope frequent service will allow more flexibility in the kinds of things our university customers need to transport."

Gondola plans began in the 1960s

Sajo R/Wikicommons Metrocable gondola lift system in Medellin, Colombia was first gondola lift used for mass transportation purposes.

Engineering students at UC Santa Cruz first dreamed of a gondola to transport students and staff between downtown and the lower campus in 1968. Santa Cruz METRO, in the meantime, was a brand new agency with big plans. Among these plans: a trolley to run up what is now the median of Bay Street to the campus.

After Governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act into law in 1970, however, METRO discovered several problems during their environmental review of the trolley project. Trolley tracks and speeding trains adversely impact the movement of wildlife. The gondola project soon came to their attention as an alternative, and project engineers found that the gondola towers are a favorable alternative for the environment.

METRO failed to find the estimated $850,000 required for the project in 1972, so they shelved those plans.

Long time staffers at the transportation commission, however, remembered the dream of a gondola. When Senior Transportation Planner Flora Lopi read about Zuckerberg's Orbit Citys Foundation, she immediately contacted them and presented her idea.

Schwartz was immediately impressed with Lopi's presentation. "Everybody brings slide presentations, but Flora had file drawers of beautifully hand drawn schematics from the 1970s," said Schwartz. "It was all there, detailed plans and including environmental review documents."

Lopi points out the environmental review will need to be done over. "Federal and state environmental laws have changed significantly since 1972, but we have already started the EIR process with neighborhood meetings and other public outreach," she says.

More Orbit City Projects

Observers believe Zuckerberg began Orbit City in reaction to the self driving car program at Google. Other projects receiving funding from Zuckerberg include the Mineta San Josť International Airport People Mover and a Personal Rapid Transit demonstration linking downtown Palo Alto with Facebook's headquarters campus in Menlo Park.

Work began on the airport people mover in March 2012, with the tunnel from the Santa Clara Caltrain station underneath the runways to Terminal A almost complete. The People Mover will feature demand activated electric carts to transport people through the one mile tunnel from Santa Clara to the airport.

The Personal Rapid Transit demonstration is more ambitious, with plans for a futuristic monorail-type structure floating above University Avenue from Alma Street in Palo Alto to Facebook in Menlo Park. The city of East Palo Alto have already approved the monorail project, which includes rebuilding University Avenue from Highway 101 to Bayfront Expressway using Complete Streets design principles. Opposition remains strong in the city of Palo Alto, especially from residents of "Professorville" north of Middlefield Road in Palo Alto.

Follow Sentinel reporter Anna Mae Bullock on Twitter at Twitter.com/CruzTranspo

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