Clearwater company pushes futuristic solution to local traffic congestion

There’s an old saying that, “you can’t build your way out of [traffic] congestion.”

But a Clearwater company has ambitious plans to build a way over it.
 
BeachTran Clearwater proposes using emerging technology known as Aerial Personal Rapid Transit (APRT) to move people back and forth between downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach, one of the Tampa Bay Area’s most popular and most congested routes to the beach.
 
A California-based company, skyTran, has developed the transportation system BeachTran wants to introduce to Tampa Bay. It uses magnetic levitation technology to move two-person passenger pods along an elevated guide rail. SkyTran developed the state of the art system at the NASA Ames facility in Mountain View, CA. 

The futuristic technology has also drawn retro comparisons to the flying cars in the classic cartoon The Jetsons.

BeachTran manager Tom Nocera, who grew up in Largo, has pitched a solar-powered version of this elevated personal rapid transit system as a solution to the region’s congestion since 2016. The system would be on-demand, with passengers ordering a pod from an Uber-style phone app. The projected per person ticket price is $4.

The company’s plan is to start with a pilot project that runs from downtown Clearwater to Pier 60, with a total of five stations. The route, Nocera said, would give passengers a unique “pelican’s eye view” of the beach and Gulf.
 
They envision a large multi-story terminal hub, with a parking garage and retail development, in what is now a grassy field in downtown Clearwater.

Going beyond Clearwater

From the initial beach route, they would like to expand the system and branch out to reach destinations such as the Nova University site on the western side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa International Airport, Raymond James Stadium, the International Plaza, Oldsmar, and Tropicana Field. 

“What we have to start is a backbone,” Nocera says. “Then we can add the ribs and flesh things in.”

BeachTran officials are adamant it would be a completely free enterprise system, built with private financing and operating off revenues from ticket fares.

“Not only will we not ask for taxpayer money, we will be providing taxpayer money,” BeachTran Community Relations Director Joseph Corvino says. “We would be paying for the right-of-way and making agreements for any property. That is unique for a transportation solution.”

While BeachTran says they will seek no taxpayer or public money, they will require significant public approvals to make their system reality. The state of Florida would have to grant right-of-way to run the elevated system down the center of the Memorial Causeway bridge. Clearwater would also have to grant right-of-way for the system and either sell or lease property for stations.
 
Their current vision for future expansions could require right-of-way approvals to run a line over the Pinellas Trail.

At this point in time, the technology in question is not in operation to carry passengers anywhere in the world. Multiple news reports said skyTran will have a system operating on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island  by 2020.

Talks with Space Florida 

Also, skyTran is in talks with Space Florida to potentially lease property to build a pilot system on the former space shuttle runway at Cape Canaveral. Dale Ketcham, the VP of government and external affairs for Space Florida, says that agency still needs more technical documents from skyTran before those talks can advance.
 
“Nothing is a complete show stopper. It’s just that the data we need we have yet to get from the company. Until we get that we are kind of in a holding pattern,” Ketcham says.

Space Florida is interested, he adds, in the potential that magnetic levitation technology may have for future space travel. 

“Some of the technologies they are pursuing could have applications in aerospace transportation technologies,” he says. “Using an electromagnetic pulse on a rail to get things moving really fast and sling them into space has been  considered a potential component for space flight for some time.”

As for BeachTran, Nocera says the next step is to have their contracted engineers submit data to the state showing that the system is lightweight enough to be built across the center line Memorial Causeway bridge without damaging or negatively impacting the bridge.

The projected design and construction cost for the route from downtown to Clearwater Beach is $45 million. Nocera says he is confident they can raise the required financing if they receive government approvals and get agreements to use public right-of-way.

Nocera, who earned an associate’s degree in aerospace technology from St. Petersburg College and worked as an associate engineer at Kennedy Space Center during the time of Apollo 11, says all aerospace innovations have proved skeptics wrong.

“There are always people who can’t envision what the future will be until somebody goes out and creates it,” he says.

Learn more about BeachTran Clearwater.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather and the wealth of outdoor festivals.
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