Wayne Sisco has looked out over the empty rooftops of Perimeter Center’s parking garages and seen the future.
The Sandy Springs resident envisions a web of gondolas—something like enclosed ski-lift chairs—riding garage-mounted cables to connect commuters to MARTA stations and corporate headquarters. He calls them “urban ropeways” or “SkyWays,” and he figures some of those corporations might enjoy branding them as well as commuting on them.
“Instead of rounded gondolas, you could have [them shaped like] a UPS truck,” Sisco said. “You could have fun with it. Not silly, outrageous fun, but provocative fun. Flying cars—how cool would that be?”
Sisco is one of many entrepreneurs attracted by traffic-choked Perimeter Center’s recent alternative transportation talk. In just six months, jokes about Brookhaven and Sandy Springs monorails have turned into a Perimeter Center Improvement Districts’ study about reserving alternative transit right of way and eventually issuing a request for proposals.
From Marietta to Massachusetts, companies are coming out of the woodwork to pitch alternative transit ideas. Some are dusting off plans dating to the 1980s construction boom and 1996 Summer Olympics; others are trying to break new ground. One thing the proposals—from magnetic levitation trains to bicycle share systems—share is a cool factor.
Another thing many ideas share: they don’t exist yet anywhere else in the country. If the Perimeter cities indeed issue that RFP within 18 months, they’ll have to figure out which cool ideas translate into business plans and actual transit improvements.
“We don’t want to be buying Beta when it’s VHS,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said in a recent interview about the transit challenge. “You don’t want to get caught in a technology warp…At the same time, we’re not waiting ’til technology shakes out.”
“It’s always controversial,” says Robert Schreiber, a Buckhead resident whose 1992 Georgia Tech master’s thesis was an analysis of 20 alternative transit systems—including a monorail recently proposed again in Perimeter—for potential campus use during the Olympics. His 127-page thesis shows the many complex factors involved—from cost to safety to urban planning—and the unhappy fate of even some viable options.
Schreiber said that one of his favorites was Brazilian company Aeromovel’s monorail propelled by compressed air. He recalled it being pitched to a Perimeter business group in the 1990s. “Perimeter looked at it, but Perimeter didn’t do anything,” he said. And the company is “inactive currently in the United States,” according to Aeromovel’s Steven Ivins.
Three companies are among those making alternative transit pitches:
Sisco, a real estate broker and contractor, said he started thinking about Perimeter Center transportation in the 1980s, when he was director of construction at Sandy Springs’ Palisades office park. But inspiration struck recently when he looked at an aerial map and saw acres of empty roof decks on parking garages.
“It’s what I call a last frontier,” he said. At first, he considered pitching solar panels, but then realized parking garages would make great pre-built transit stations.
He proposes two gondola systems. One is an X-shaped network centered on Perimeter Mall and branching out to the Concourse Center, Ravinia, Terraces and Cox office buildings. The other runs along Ga. 400 between the North Springs MARTA station and the future Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters in Sandy Springs.
Sisco is trying to start a company—it’s currently not incorporated and has no financial backers—he calls Central Perimeter Plus. The gondolas are the main plan; the “plus” adds inflatable domes for sports leagues to play on the parking decks and new charter schools along the lines.
Sisco says his system would be cheap to build, but doesn’t have solid cost estimates and acknowledges that “nobody’s really doing this in America.” He has contacted the city of Sandy Springs and such companies as Mercedes-Benz—even hand-delivering proposals in a wooden box “symbolizing their parking deck”—but hasn’t had any takers.
He’s now focused on pitching gondolas in Atlanta. “We could have transit on the BeltLine in six months,” he said.
Marietta engineer Bill Owen recently tossed his “HighRoad” monorail plan into the local transit ring by securing a seat on a May 13 Perimeter Business Alliance panel discussion. But that was far from his first Perimeter pitch.
He put his monorail idea together in 1985, pitching a region-wide system with a branch running across the top-end Perimeter and along Ga. 400 and I-75. His Owen Transit Group has proposed other sub-systems, too, like a Downtown Atlanta loop.
The HighRoad was among the systems Schreiber reviewed—unfavorably—at Georgia Tech, finding its side-mounted cars to be an operations problem. Owen said his design has changed since then and can work efficiently.
At the business alliance discussion, Owen displayed a small scale model of two monorail cars. But he has no actual test model of his train and acknowledged that “nobody’s built this before, so there’s no history.”
However, Owen is convinced he has good cost estimates from his informal group of engineers and suppliers for a Perimeter Center loop. In an interview, he said the plan is a 12-mile monorail looping through the business district and the Pill Hill medical center.
The 140-passenger cars could reach top speeds of 80 mph. He estimated construction costs at $25 million per mile, or $300 million total, which he claimed could be covered by bonds and fares with no tax dollars. His projected fare would be 50 cents a mile. Among cost savings: an automated, driver-less system, and offices and maintenance facilities built into the stations.
Zagster bike share
The Perimeter Center cities’ plan to reserve possible mass transit right of way is part of a definite plan to build multi-use pedestrian and bicycle paths. That’s something bike “share”—rental—companies could use, and one called Zagster has already sent a proposal to Sandy Springs.
Massachusetts-based Zagster operates about 120 bike share systems, with about 15 of those in cities and the rest on university or corporate campuses.
That includes Zagster systems in Smyrna, Alpharetta and Kennesaw’s Town Center Community Improvement District.
The system uses bikes locked onto racks at a network of stations. A lockbox on each bike is opened via a code the rider receives by app or text message. A credit card is required, but there’s no deposit, and the rental fee is set in consultation with the community. Zagster enters cities as a public-private partnership where the city pays for the bikes and gets roughly 95 percent of the revenue, with Zagster handling everything else. Alpharetta’s cost to set up a Zagster system was about $22,000, a city spokesperson said.
“The message we really have for communities like Sandy Springs is, look at all the options that are out there” for bike share, said Zagster’s Nate Taber.
He said the company’s “focus is not about selling or pushing a particular type of technology” but in serving the community.