Need a Lift?

County officials float the notion of a new aerial tramway to Mount Lemmon.

Desert dwellers stuck for five years after voters agreed to pay $1.5 million for a Mount Lemmon shuttle may eventually be able to zip to Summerhaven aboard an aerial tramway.

The tram would climb up the Coronado National Forest via the backside of Mount Lemmon, ascending from Catalina State Park along the path of power lines, Pima County officials say.

Supervisor Ray Carroll, the Republican whose district includes Mount Lemmon, and County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said this week that the tram is a post-Aspen Fire idea whose time has come.

Guarantees for the masses to enjoy the cool of Mount Lemmon summers, fall foliage and the limited ski season are propelling Carroll and Huckelberry to seek a rapid transit solution.

"The timing is obviously right," Carroll said. "I'm open to this. You have to ensure access to the mountain for everyone. We don't want to close the door to this idea."

Doors to a shuttle have been shut, if not locked, since county voters approved the Mount Lemmon shuttle as one item of the 56-part transportation bond measure in November 1997. Shuttles could have started as early as 1998, but most of the study and subsequent opposition occurred in 1999 and 2000.

Huckelberry says it may be time to abandon the rubber-tire transit plan in favor of the aerial tramway. He is not daunted, under either scenario, by costs.

"The capital part was never an issue," Huckelberry said. "It is operating costs and maintenance. They will far outstrip the initial capital costs quickly."

But tramway construction would require much more than $1.5 million. The county will seek approval of new bonds in May.

Included in early discussion is the tram's destination and whether there should be some other mass transit--light shuttles--to Ski Valley or the commercial section of Summerhaven.

With much of the residential and commercial areas lost to the Aspen Fire in June, tram or shuttle planning is appropriate, Huckelberry said.

After a period of sharp acrimony between Huckelberry and Carroll over the shuttle three years ago, the two are united in the passion that the mountain is open to all.

"With all the money the county is spending there and all the money that was spent to fight the fire, it is important that it be accessible to all, to everyone who lives and works in Tucson and beyond," Carroll said. "Mount Lemmon is not some exclusive enclave. It belongs to everyone."

Added Huckelberry: "Historically, it's been a little schizophrenic up there with some people believing there should be no visitors."

Those who have visited Albuquerque or Palm Springs can picture a long span climbing from high desert to forest.

The Sandia Peak Tramway, a 2.7-mile aerial ride that is billed as the world's longest, rises from the northeast edge of Albuquerque to an elevation of 10,378 in the Cibola National Forest. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a 2.5-mile ascent from the California desert to an elevation of 8,516 in Chino Canyon. Summerhaven is at 8,000 feet.

Switching from shuttle buses to an aerial tramway would not be a difficult maneuver for the Board of Supervisors. It has repeatedly altered the bonds and the county's Truth in Bonding Ordinance to delete or rearrange projects or schedules.

Carroll, Huckelberry and other county officials sought six years ago to relieve congestion on the General Hitchcock Highway that winds up Mount Lemmon and to open the recreation areas up to more people. Carroll particularly has pushed for disadvantages and those unable to drive to get up the mountain.

Voters gave the green light to a plan to "provide public transit access ... to Mount Lemmon and Summerhaven and to Sabino Canyon Recreation area," according to the ballot question. "The bond funding will provide for turnouts and other facilities adjacent to the roadways to allow the transit to operate safely along these two-lane roads."

Other county, state and federal funds would have covered costs of buses and operations.

The whole matter sputtered when opposition--generated chiefly by Summerhaven residents Judy Lefton, a former Tucson Citizen reporter and business editor, and her husband, Michael "Lefty" Lefton--arose over the placement of the visitors' center and shuttle stop.

Longtime Mount Lemmon property owners Arthur and Mary Faul had agreed to donate the property to the county. Carroll, then in a precarious position with Huckelberry and Democrats who controlled the Board of Supervisors, saw his dream for a shuttle nearly vanquished. Repeated raids were made on the bond funds for the project.

Smoothed relations and the slow pace of the shuttle bus plan has Huckelberry thinking about the tramway.

With up to 20 stops, the shuttle could take an hour and a half or more, Huckelberry said. The tram could make the trip in 15 minutes.

Still, the lower-tech bus shuttle would offer access to the Sun Tran bus line so car-less visitors and non-drivers could take Sun Tran to the Udall Recreation Center, 7200 E. Tanque Verde Road, to catch a Mount Lemmon shuttle. Under previous plans, four shuttles would make roundtrips daily.

Udall Center is about 12 miles from downtown; Catalina State Park is about 20 miles from downtown.

Huckelberry and Carroll also have emphasized that fares will not be prohibitive, because they will be subsidized much like the county helps underwrite some Sun Tran routes and other rural transit with about $3 million a year.

An adult ticket on the Sandia tram is $15. At Palm Springs, adults ride for $20.80.

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