Round Rock leaders hear details on gondola idea

Faced with the question of how to approach mass-transit, Round Rock's city leaders are keeping their options open—even considering those that have not been tried before.

Round Rock City Council hosted a public meeting Feb. 14 to discuss the feasibility of using a gondola ski lift-style system for mass transit. Representatives of Frog Design, an Austin-based global design and innovation company, shared a presentation on the potential costs and benefits of using an above-ground system to transport passengers.

"If you were looking to move a lot of people without a schedule, the ski industry might be a good place to look," Frog Principal Technologist Jared Ficklin said.

Ficklin said advantages of gondolas include the continuous movement of the system, which reduces passenger wait time, and the comparatively low cost vs. rail or road expansion.

The engineers at Frog have envisioned a prototype connector system for the Austin region that could move hundreds of thousands of passengers daily without interfering with traffic on the ground. Frog has labeled the system The Wire, in reference to the cables that would carry the gondolas between stops.

"[Gondola transportation] is very much an emerging system of an existing technology that has been around for 50–60 years," Frog Principal Designer Michael McDaniel said.

Ficklin estimated that for the $550 million the City of Austin estimates it would cost to construct its 5.5-mile light rail system, the city could install 14 miles of gondolas. He said the system could move passengers at speeds equal to or greater than cars, buses or rail through dense urban settings. Gondola manufacturers have also developed technology to fit the cabins for climate control and wheelchair access, he said.

"I love the big idea," said Councilman Carlos Salinas. "I think the big challenge is for the people who sit up here [on the City Council]."

Mayor Alan McGraw said The Wire design caught the city's attention when planners began to explore mass-transit possibilities and costs. McGraw said Frog Design offered an impressive idea for a solution.

"Over the last several years we kind of joked about all of these right of way issues we have dealt with and said 'wouldn't it be nice to go over them,'" McGraw said. "We wondered if there was anything out there that could compete with buses or trains. We just wanted to explore if [The Wire] was a viable concept."