Rensselaer-Albany gondola project will seek state funding again

Rensselaer-Albany gondola project will seek state funding again

Capital Gondola, LLC, which wants to construct a mile-long aerial ropeway over the Hudson River between Albany and Rensselaer, will again seek a capital grant from the state through the Capital Region Regional Economic Development Council to cover one-fifth of “eligible project costs,” the entity’s executive director, Tom Madison, told The Alt.

Following the completion of a still-confidential “ridership, revenue and economic impact” study—the one by consulting firm Steer Davies Gleave for which you might’ve filled out a survey last September—the estimated project cost has decreased from $43 million to around $25 million, Madison said. “The alignment and the number of stations, so consequently the number of gondola cabins associated with it, have all been changed.”

As envisioned now, the project will feature only two stops: the Rensselaer Rail Station and someplace near the Albany Capital Center. (Bob Belber, regional general manager for SMG, which operates the convention center, said in an email that he has “not heard of any agreement being negotiated for rights to place a station near the ACC.”) The “safe, scenic and thrilling” trip across the Hudson will take five minutes, Madison said.

A previous, three-station version, as described by the Times Union, would have stopped at South Pearl St. and Empire State Plaza. “The revised scope preserves the option for a future intermediate station,” Madison said.

The ropeway will require 11 towers (down from 14) and carry 52 gondola cabins. As previously announced, the system will operate 16 hours a day, every day, accommodating up to 3,000 customers an hour.

The project team, which includes McLaren Engineering Group and O’Connell Electric Company, still intends to fund the project with up to 80 percent private capital, Madison said. “We’re in the final stages of getting our financing together.”

All of the initial investors will also play a role in delivering the project, Madison said. Harrison & Burrowes Bridge Constructors, for example, is an equity investor that will also help to build the towers and foundations.

Discussions are also ongoing with the Capital District Transportation Authority, which owns the Rensselaer Rail Station. In a recent report to the authority’s board, CDTA CEO Carm Basile said he met with gondola project staff in May. “We are working with them as appropriate,” Basile’s report says.

The project was not selected for state funding through the Regional Economic Development Council process last year. Applications for the REDC’s eighth round are due July 27, and an awards ceremony will be held in “late fall,” according to a presentation at the council’s public meeting on May 31. (For this story, The Alt spoke with Madison at that meeting and corresponded with him via email before and after the event.)

Rensselaer Mayor Dan Dwyer and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan have expressed support for the proposed project, even signing a memorandum of understanding between their cities and Capital Gondola, LLC.

The MOU “amounts to a general expression of support,” Brian Shea, Mayor Sheehan’s chief of staff, told The Alt via email. The mayor, who remains “hopeful for a final proposal that will allow developers to move forward,” hasn’t yet signed the newest version of the MOU, which features “small changes,” Shea said.

“I think it’s more of a coordination issue than anything else,” Shea said, when asked why the mayor hasn’t signed the latest version.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Mayor Dwyer said he also has not yet signed the latest version. He has a “problem” with one of its items, he said, but declined to go into more detail.

The Alt obtained, via Google cache, a version of the MOU that appeared on the Dec. 7 agenda of the Capital District Transportation Committee, which oversees federal transportation funds. It identifies the CDTC as a signatory party, but the agreement was pulled from the agenda amid “additional last minute informational questions from CDTC members,” Madison said. (CDTC has not approved the agreement, executive director Michael Franchini told The Alt.)

The not-executed version obtained by The Alt says that signatories agree to (1) “participate fully in the CDG project development process,” (2) “support and promote the PROJECT publicly wherever possible,” (3) “endorse PROJECT funding requests as appropriate,” (4) “process necessary permits and approvals in a fair and expeditious manner,” and (5) “grant CDG authority to operate the system as necessary and where applicable, subject to” various approvals and adherence to safety standards.

In a statement provided to The Alt, Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, who has promoted a potential bike trail that would connect Troy to Rensselaer, said that the “gondola idea, and other related ideas, that allow for reestablishment of our connection to [the Hudson River] should be reviewed carefully and given serious consideration.”

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said in a statement that his administration is “supportive of economic development opportunities that are beneficial to residents and taxpayers and will continue to explore prospects” with Capital Gondola team.

“I think people are taking it much more seriously now,” Madison told The Alt, when asked if he has observed a change in public perception of the proposal over time. “We would love for Albany-Rensselaer to be kind of a symbol of what can be done.”

Opening the project by the time the Times Union Center hosts two rounds of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament in March 2020 “should be an attainable goal” if financing is in place, Madison said.

This story was updated to include comments received after publication from Bob Belber of SMG.

The above visual rendering—”conceptual only,” according to Madison—was provided by Capital Gondola.

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