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The future of transportation to San Diego International Airport could be up in the air, as County of San Diego officials weigh the possibility of introducing cable-propelled gondolas as an alternative to motor vehicle or rail transportation.
The year-long study, completed in September, evaluated the feasibility of building an aerial cableway system between the San Diego Convention Center and San Diego International Airport, the busiest single-runway airport in the U.S.
“Given the current plan to construct a new Terminal 1 at San Diego International Airport, there is an immediate opportunity to fully integrate a skyway station with the design of the new terminal,” said Christopher Wahl, WSP lead planner and project manager for the feasibility assessment.
The study involved evaluating potential alignment alternatives, potential system-wide ridership, and capital and operating & maintenance (O&M) costs. Potential environmental and community considerations, funding opportunities, and opportunities to connect with regional transit systems were also evaluated. WSP created 3D simulation images to illustrate the concept.
WSP prepared the study for the County of San Diego. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) provided project management and travel demand modeling support.
The final report from the WSP study highlighted the advantages as well as the disadvantages of creating an aerial cableway to the airport.
“Considering the relatively small footprint of the towers and stations, aerial cableway technology poses fewer impacts to existing land uses and a lower cost than connecting light rail transit (LRT) to the airport,” Wahl said. “However, future studies will also have to factor in the potential visual impacts that the cableway could create, among other items.”
A cableway system could move 2,400 passengers per hour in each direction, which would be greater than a three-car LRT system running at 15-minute intervals, which could carry an estimated 1,800 passengers in the same time frame.
“The entire system can operate using a single electric 500-horsepower motor, which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions when compared to other modes,” Wahl said. “In addition, the minimal footprint required to operate the skyway could result in reduced right-of-way impacts and less impact to sensitive habitats compared to other modes.”
This was not WSP’s first foray into an aerial cableway evaluation for San Diego. The concept had an initial run in 2014, when Wahl was part of the firm’s efforts to evaluate and visualize the potential for creating a two-mile Bay-to-Balboa Skyway that would run along Sixth Avenue in downtown San Diego using eight-passenger cabins.
The study examined potential alignment options, station locations, potential environmental and community considerations, ridership, costs and funding opportunities. It determined that an aerial skyway could be successfully integrated into San Diego's existing infrastructure, and constructed and operated at a cost far below other public transportation options in that area.
“When we initially met with (San Diego County) Supervisor Ron Roberts to study the Bay-to-Balboa system, he envisioned an airport system being a potential extension of the Bay-Balboa line,” Wahl said. “Though the two systems were evaluated separately, it would technically be possible to link the two systems near the Gaslamp Quarter station at 5th Ave & Harbor Drive.”
That study laid the foundation for additional research that resulted in a comprehensive white paper, “Urban Application of Aerial Cableway Technology,” which summarizes the benefits of aerial cableway technology and addresses the costs and challenges associated with introducing the technology into an urban environment.
“The idea of a cableway as an alternative transit mode has the potential to be both a bold and creative solution for urban mobility,” Wahl said. “We believe this technology could be considered for many cities across the U.S.”
It’s still quite early in the planning process; but if officials decide to proceed with the plan, it would be the first such airport-based aerial cableway system in the U.S.
Previous studies have considered the possibility of creating a traditional LRT connection to the airport, and future alternatives analysis may or may not include skyways.
“The timeline for a decision on such a project is still undetermined,” Wahl said. “Potential next steps are being considered; however, the funding needed to conduct further analysis has not been identified.”
Future studies would require input from several key stakeholders, including the San Diego Airport Authority, Port of San Diego, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Wahl believes that urban aerial cableways could gain traction as an economical and convenient people mover. “The potential is growing, especially in areas with constrained environments, or where an aerial cableway could extend existing transit lines,” he said. “It has the potential to provide an effective first/last mile solution.”
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