Escape from Alameda Point 

As developers contemplate a built-out Naval Air Station, their thoughts turn to fanciful new modes of transportation.

It could be an amusement park thrill ride. As soon as you are safely seated, you are whisked upward to a height of 250 feet. You're in a 24-passenger gondola, riding on strong steel cables and surrounded by large glass windows. You quickly cross the island of Alameda, then before you know it, shoot out over the Oakland Estuary, enjoying views of the East Bay Hills, the bay, and downtown San Francisco. A freighter arriving from some unknown port of call passes underneath, and you watch one of the port's giant cranes carefully place containers onto another ship, which soon will cast off its lines and head for the high seas. The car begins its descent, and when it reaches the West Oakland BART station, everyone hops off.

This is neither Disney's "East Bay Adventure" nor, its backers insist, some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. The folks who want to build this high-tech people-mover say aerial gondolas are the most practical way to get commuters to and from the former Alameda Naval Air Station. The tramway is being proposed by Alameda Point Community Partners -- a consortium consisting of Morgan Stanley, Shea Homes, Centex Homes, and the Industrial Realty Group -- that was picked by the Alameda City Council in August to be master redevelopers of the former base. Over the next fifteen years, the Partners hope to build some 1,600 units of housing, four and a half million square feet of industrial and commercial space, and more than 100,000 square feet of retail shops on the 775 acres now called Alameda Point.

Getting to and from all that new activity poses a problem, however. The island's three bridges and the Webster and Posey tubes already are jammed at rush hour. Debbie Potter, manager of Alameda's Base Reuse and Redevelopment Authority, believes the bridges and tube could accommodate the initial phases of the conversion. "But if we're going to build out the full plan -- especially the commercial and retail -- we would need the additional capacity," she said.

The tramway could accommodate almost four thousand riders an hour, said Thom Gamble, managing member of the consortium. "That's equivalent to another whole tube." Not only would it carry an equivalent volume of traffic, it would do so more efficiently, he said. The mile-and-a-half trip to BART from the Alameda terminus, near the harbor where seaplanes once landed, would take less than eight minutes, he said. Today, Alamedans must travel to the Fruitvale station to catch a train to San Francisco. "You couldn't drive there in seven minutes and you couldn't get there in a bus in seven minutes," he said.

The consortium beat two other companies for rights to the fifteen-year, $2 billion project. It's not hard to see why there was competition; in addition to being one of the largest undeveloped parcels of land in the East Bay, Alameda Point commands magnificent views of the water and the San Francisco skyline. The Air Station was decommissioned in 1997, but the Navy still owns the property. It will not be transferred to the city until more than fifty years' worth of toxic materials -- fuel, metal coating, cleaning solvents, and more -- are cleaned up by the military. The developers plan to reuse many of the former Navy buildings, but will construct new housing and other facilities, including a marina at the cove once used for seaplane landings and takeoffs. Once the project is complete, the property will become part of the city of Alameda.

Other potential developers suggested building a light rail system. Gamble says his company rejected that idea, because it would have to be built through existing neighborhoods and would likely draw vociferous opposition from residents. "Some people thought we were really crazy," Gamble recalled. But a new bridge or tube would have been "prohibitively expensive," he said, as well as a logistical and environmental nightmare. Gamble expects the tram, along with a nearby parking garage, to cost about $35 million.

The plan does have its critics. Bill Smith, chair of the local Sierra Club's environmental justice committee, who has tracked the Alameda Point redevelopment for a decade, worries that the tram will require an "enormous subsidy" to cover its operating costs. Smith believes that the number of people living and working on the base simply won't be enough to support the gondola project. The Sierra Club and other environmentalists have long criticized Alameda for severely limiting development of new multifamily housing on the island, a trend that he says is continuing with the base redevelopment.

"With the density they have proposed, you don't really have much choice but automobiles," he says. One possible alternative would be to have companies moving to Alameda Point help pay for buses that would connect to BART. "You could get a subsidized bus system with the interest payments needed for the gondolas."

Gamble, however, promises that the project will use "no public money" and says that company projections show that it will run an operating profit. The consortium would run the project until it was "fiscally stable," at which point he envisions it being turned over to a transit agency such as BART or AC Transit.

Supporters of the project tout several other virtues. Randy Woolwine, vice president of Doppelmayr USA, the company hired to construct the tramway, said construction of the gondola system would cause "almost zero" disruption to traffic on the island. That's because there would be very little construction on the ground. Three or four support towers would be built on the island, with an equal number on the Oakland side. The cars would ride on two-inch-diameter steel cables strung with "extreme" tension across the water, he said. The entire system would be powered by a single 550-horsepower motor, which would move the cables in a continuous loop, much in the manner of the many Tahoe-area ski lifts that bear the company's name.

Doppelmayr's Austrian parent company has been in business for a hundred years, and has built some 8,200 people-movers in 68 countries. Most of them have been ski lifts, but in recent years it has built several urban systems, including a tramway connecting the casinos along the Las Vegas Strip, and one along the shoreline in Lisbon, Portugal. Woolwine said this would be the first time the company had strung lines over a working port, but other systems run at greater altitudes. "For us to go higher or lower over the water is no big deal," he said. The major impediments are not the ships, which already have to be low enough to get under the bridges, but the giant Trojan Horse cranes that raise cargo high into the air for loading and unloading.

Of course, unlike ski lifts and other recreational trams, commuters would be depending on the shuttle to get to and from work. "This has to be able to run in all weather conditions," Woolwine said. That's why the projected Alameda-Oakland system would be designed to run at full speed in seventy-mile-per-hour winds, and could be operated more slowly in gusts as high as 85 mph. Woolwine expects the tram's hours to be the same as BART's.

Gamble believes coordination with BART is essential for the tram's success. He wants passengers to arrive "right on the platform" of the West Oakland station, with a ticket that would allow them to step directly onto a BART train. The fare would be comparable to that of a local bus, he said, between $1.35 and $1.50.

Potter said her staff is "very interested in the idea" and called it a "creative" solution to the island's access problems, although she noted that getting it up and running won't be easy. "There are lots of jurisdictions and agencies that will be involved," she said. Every element of the project would have to be coordinated with the Port, BART, AC Transit and others, she said. For instance, she noted, the idea of using a single ticket for both the gondolas and BART is "a little bit new and different." Gamble will need to obtain approval from more than one dozen local, state, and federal authorities before construction can begin.

Consequently, it should be a while before any cables are actually strung across the estuary. Gamble said construction won't begin until four or five years into the fifteen-year redevelopment project, when there are more people living and working on Alameda Point. But he is confident that thousands of commuters ultimately will make the daily round trip, sharing the gondolas with tourists and adrenaline junkies. "The view from 250 feet above the bay is going to be breathtaking."


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