Local Entrepreneurs Invest in Traffic Alternatives

By Larry Lewis

Publisher’s Note: This is the third article in our series about finding solutions to Tampa Bay’s transportation challenges.

As Tampa Bay’s roads grow more congested, local visionaries look to privately funded ambitious alternatives promising relief by means that are both cutting edge and as ancient as the seas.

Tom Nocera points to the planned Court Street station in downtown Clearwater. It will be
one of many stations for BeachTran Clearwater LLC which will utilize 3rd generation solar powered MagLev (passive magnetic levitation) technology to move two and four-passenger LevCars along dedicated monorail “guideway” lines. Photo by Larry Lewis.

In 2014, Tom Nocera, a Clearwater resident and the youngest launch crew engineer on the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, launched BeachTran Clearwater LLC. It will utilize 3rd generation solar powered MagLev (passive magnetic levitation) technology to move two and four-passenger LevCars along dedicated monorail “guideway” lines in the region. The computer controlled, frictionless system has few moving parts, no drivers, redundant safeguards and will provide environmentally sound, on-demand mobility, unlike trains and buses with fixed schedules and required station stops.

The investor-funded $45 million pilot project will connect Court Street in downtown Clearwater to Clearwater Beach via a five-station, 2.8 mile route with LevCars moving at 40 to 50 mph. Riders will reserve a car via an Uber-like app and at station kiosks with tickets set at $4 for an uninterrupted three minute scenic ride to/from the beach and no parking hassles along a waterfront hosting over 5 million visitors annually. The route awaits approval from FDOT to use the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge (SR60) with a spring 2019 target date.

“This is a winning traffic solution,” says Nocera, who anticipates rapid expansion of routes throughout Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The key is the concept’s ingenious flexibility, as the system is mostly in the air. Guideway rails are suspended 30 feet high on bollard-protected poles located off roadways with lease rights. “We can build lines at the rate of a mile a week at $1 million per mile. That’s 1/10 what it’d cost for light rail,” Nocera explains, noting that the planned expansion of the Howard Frankland Bridge anticipates adding rail. “They won’t need it,” he adds. “We can build over that bridge’s bike paths. The failure of the Greenlight Pinellas initiative in 2014 was a blessing.”

This rendition shows a potential station concept. Stations will vary in size/scope, depending on the immediate area they’re serving. Guideway rails are suspended 30 feet in the air on bollard-protected poles. Image courtesy of BeachTran.

BeachTran will purchase turnkey systems from Google-invested builder skyTran which is negotiating a lease for a demo track from Space Florida, the state’s aerospace development agency, on 15 acres along the former shuttle landing strip at Kennedy Space Center. NASA’s Ames Research Center is assisting and that track is planned for March. A demo track is operating already in Israel.

Stations will vary in size and sit along major roadways, bike trails, etc. Spur lines into the stations will assure a nonstop route flow. The first expansion will be eastward along the Courtney Campbell to Tampa International Airport and, later, Raymond James Stadium in time for Super Bowl LV in February 2021. “You can be delivered right to your seating section inside that game or the Rays’ field. Hotels along the beaches will want stations…colleges hospitals, shopping centers, business parks enticing firms and employees. The system will be a tourist attraction in itself.”

Nocera expects to move into southern Pinellas by the end of 2021. “You can’t widen Gulf Boulevard. We’ll be the solution to move locals, tourists and beach employees, on time, 24/7. We’ll penetrate downtown St. Petersburg. We’ll be the first company offering this in the western hemisphere. We’re already fielding inquiries from many cities like Atlanta.”
“We’ll eliminate the second family car, reduce maintenance/insurance costs and parking, while increasing transit safety. I feel like my whole life has led me to this point of building the team that can make this happen.”

For Captain Sherman Baldwin, who grew up on New England’s Cape Cod, boating has been a way of life for 46 years and water is an alternative. The longtime manager of Paradise Boat Tours in Bradenton Beach has spent four years spearheading the Sarasota Bradenton Ferry, a new service approved a year ago promising near-hourly Intracoastal roundtrips from 8 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. daily, from Sarasota’s 10th Street Boat Basin to Bradenton Beach and Bradenton’s Riverwalk. Once completed in two years, a stop at the new Anna Maria Island pier will be added.

The service will use two purpose-built, 149-passenger, environmentally friendly catamarans…no exposed propellers, a 14 inch wake at 30 knots, and “the ability to slowly burn waste oil, so we’re not putting it in a dump,” notes Baldwin. Concessions, TV’s, and comfortable seating assure a pleasant trip. One boat awaits certification; the second is under construction. The ferry service gets underway this month, if contractors finish city-funded modifications to the dockage near Sarasota’s Van Wezel concert hall in time. The project is privately-funded, in contrast to the Cross Bay Ferry, which has sporadically operated between St. Petersburg and Tampa to mixed success.

“The Intracoastal Waterway was created to move commercial traffic, so our plan is an ideal use,” Baldwin says. “It makes perfect sense.” Key to the ferry’s long-term success is expansion by 2019 to St. Pete Beach, downtown St. Petersburg and even MacDill Air Force Base, which Baldwin sites as a major employer of people from Pinellas County. “We won’t survive unless locals and commuters use it. We know the tourists will come.” Future plans include an on-call water taxi service to shuttle passengers from the ferry’s docks to waterfront attractions.

Baldwin is a believer in waterborne transportation. “It’s a powerful local tool to relieve pressure on our rampant infrastructure and improve our quality of life and attract jobs. There are communities across this country that would give their eye teeth to have a resource like our waterways available to take pressure off their land-based infrastructure. We have it. It’s time to use it.”

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