Is Pete Theisen’s plan for a Sarasota elevated rail system crazy, genius, or crazy-genius?

Feb. 20, 2009

The major push behind City Commission candidate Pete Theisen’s campaign is his idea for a countywide elevated rail system. (I touched on it last week.) If brought to fruition, the plan would include 24 platforms spread throughout the area: all over downtown Sarasota, out to Lido Key and possibly up to Bradenton and down to Venice. He actually wants to build retail space beneath the monorail and have a fleet of golf-cart-like people movers to get residents from their homes to the train stops. This would be done to clear up traffic congestion and to create thousands of jobs. He plans to seek federal money to fund the project should he get elected on March 10.

A number of people I talk to, including other candidates, automatically dismiss the idea as far too costly and altogether unnecessary. I’ve talked to some people who actually laugh out loud before moving on to another subject — one that they think is more realistic. But is the elevated railway really that crazy or is it just too progressive for some to envision?

I talked to Clark Davis, the general manager of Public Works Planning for Sarasota County, to find out what he thought about the idea and its feasibility. “My initial analysis is that it wouldn’t be cost-effective,” says Davis, speaking more seriously about the plan than anyone I’ve encountered before (aside from Theisen, of course). Using statistics and the costs of other cities’ monorail systems, information he found on lightrailnow.org, Davis puts the project into perspective for Sarasota.

According to the website, the construction of elevated railway systems costs about $120-$180 million. Per mile. Davis took the average and figured that a relatively straight monorail system spanning the 30 miles from Venice to Bradenton would cost roughly $4 billion to build. To put that into perspective, if you took all the transportation dollars that are received from local, state and federal governments for Sarasota and Manatee Counties for one year, you would be able to build roughly one mile of elevated railway. That is without spending any money to resurface roads or maintain bridges.

Basically, Davis feels that the population of the Suncoast is simply not dense enough to merit the need for such a rail system. As good as Theisen’s intentions are, he might want to look into less pricy ways to fix our transportation problems. Maybe look into light rail. According to lightrailnow.org, it is much cheaper. “One hundred years from now, Pete is going to get on that train,” says fellow City Commission candidate Robin Harrington. “He’s a visionary. I hope he can hang around. I think he’s just a little early. It shows some creativity though, that’s for sure.”

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