Tahoe-to-Carson aerial transport gets a lift from Squaw
Douglas County officials at Squaw Valley U.S.A. Tuesday caught their first glimpse of the aerial transportation system that could link Lake Tahoe with Carson Valley.
Angelo Morales, the project developer for the $700 million Kingsbury Summit project, and representatives from Garaventa CTEC Inc., the Swiss company that installs Funitel tramways, met with nearly 30 interested parties and walked them through the only funitel in North America.
Developers opted out of their plans to build a gondola last month because a funitel would be more reliable in high winds. The funitel will cost an estimated $50 million, $20 million more than what a gondola would have cost.
Proponents say that being able to operate in winds up to 65 mph in wind-prone Heavenly Valley – which has higher elevations than Squaw – is worth the added cost.
Jerry Van Osdol of Garaventa CTEC, believes heightened traffic on Kingsbury Grade caused by a major development can only benefit from a the high-tech gondola.
“With what (developers) want to do (a funitel) is the only way to do it,” Van Osdol said.
The goal of the funitel is to encourage people to park their cars at either side of the mountain, which would ultimately ease congestion, Van Osdol said.
“They won’t work separately,” Morales said of the funitel and the development project.
Instead of trying to explain the proposed transit system to a room full of people, County Manager Daniel Holler thought it would be easier to show off the finished product at Squaw.
The tour was intended to inform people firsthand about the system and answer questions regarding its safety record.
Bruce Leach manages the funitel at Squaw and said that all its operators keep a watchful eye because it has only operated for two years.
“Every morning we have to check all the braking and make sure that nothing is falling apart,” Jeff Archer, funitel operator said, adding that there have been no problems to date.
“This is (Garaventa’s) baby. They want to make sure it is running right,” Archer said.
“The lift has done everything (Squaw) wanted it to,” Leach said, which is keeping the mountain accessible to skiers and snowboarders.”
The tram runs on a slight east/west slant, which means north/south cross winds, if high enough, can shut it down. If winds blow parallel to the funitel the cars hardly budge, said the operators.
“We have only shut down a few times,” Leach said.
“With any given year with the Super Gondola (the system the funitel replaced) we would have shut it down 30 to 40 times because winds were above 40 mph,” Archer said. “Now we don’t even slow down for that.”
There are two diesel-fueled generators that could be used as backup if a power failure caused the motors to fail. The emergency method could bring riders back to the ground at a slower rate of 1.9 meters per second. There is also an evacuation process that has never been needed.
Critics questioned the visual impact from the Carson Valley.
“You can’t see it from the valley at all,” Morales said. A gondola would have installed 110 towers on the proposed site as opposed to about half that many with a funitel.
Concerns about the company being headquartered in Switzerland arose because the mechanical parts are manufactured there.
“Communication in getting parts has not been a problem,” Archer said. The majority of the building structure came from Sacramento.
“I am very much encouraged by what I see,” Don Miner, Douglas County commissioner said after taking a ride up to the top of the mountain. “(The funitel) is certainly comfortable and safe.”
Miner thinks the county has to keep an open mind about the project and simultaneously think about environmental and economic impacts.
“It’s starting to become more of a reality,” Morales said, adding that the Garaventa project has received increasing interest from potential partners.
The problem that continues to plague developers is rezoning the 66.5 acres into commercial-use land for the proposed 500-unit hotel and casino, 300-unit time-share complex, 100,000-square-foot shopping center and other improvements.
Commissioner Steve Weissinger couldn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting at Squaw but remains cautious with his thoughts about the development. He said that Kingsbury residents already have traffic congestion and that has to be addressed before a project of this magnitude moves forward.
“To me it is still a wild dream,” Weissinger said.
A Funitel transportation system combines two words. Funicular means on rails and telephenique means cable-suspended.
Squaw Valley U.S.A Funitel vital statistics
46 passenger cabins that have room for 28 standing passengers
Capable of transporting 4,000 people per hour
Travels at a speed of 6 meters per second
Trip time to the top of Squaw – 7.6 minutes
Heavier cars that are supported by two cables to make them more stable.
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