Subway in the Sky

A tram alternative to vehicle traffic


Have you found yourself trapped amid the clogged, ski traffic-inspired roadways this winter? Chances are, you’re just as eager for alternative transportation around the Truckee/North Tahoe region as the driver in front of you. And behind you. And so on.

Over a decade ago, then-resident Jeff Sparksworthy proposed a tram-based alternative to Tahoe’s transportation woes. “The solution advocated in this proposal is to create a region-wide transportation system using high-speed, 3-cable detachable aerial tramway gondolas,” a 2011 document states, available in full here. “This gondola system will be the centerpiece of the inter-modal infrastructure which will consist of a branching series of 3-wire aerial gondola lines that service the key resorts, towns, points of interest, and other transit hubs.” The 71-page outline details cost, benefits, stakeholders, other alternative regional transit, and more. Sparksworthy has since left the region, but keeps tabs on how the Basin is faring.

A similar concept is being put into action in Utah by the state’s department of transportation: A $550 million project to install a gondola linking the Salt Lake Valley to Alta Ski Area via Little Cottonwood Canyon — where traffic jams frequently occur along State Route 210. The proposal is something “the Utah Department of Transportation estimates would move roughly the same number of skiers and commuters up Little Cottonwood in an hour — a thousand — as the road does on a rare, traffic-free day,” per an NPR article, Utah’s solution to ski traffic snarl? Build the world’s longest gondola. A whopping 13,000-plus comments were received during the final public comment period for the project, and a decision is expected this summer.


Gondolas have proven to be a wildly successful public transit option in urban areas such as Mexico City and Medellín, Columbia, where the gondola is credited with helping the city shed a notoriously violent past. In the sister mountain community of Telluride, Colorado, a commuter gondola hosts nearly 3 million riders annually.

The proposed Tahoe Truckee Aerial Tramway suggests 45 miles of line, with a table of estimated travel times between 31 stations on p. 35 of the 2011 document. The Utah proposal, meanwhile, plans for about 8.5 miles of gondola line between five stations for 55 minutes of travel time.

So, how likely is it that such a transit option will be put into place in Truckee/North Tahoe — especially if some legwork has already been done?

~ AH

GONDOLAS, RENDERED: In 2011, Jeff Sparksworthy put together a vision of transit in the sky around the Tahoe region in the form of the Tahoe Truckee Aerial Tramway. Concept art courtesy Ron Gaunt of Gaunt Zimmer Designs

What is the status of efforts to create the Truckee Tahoe Aerial Tramway?

When I proposed the idea of a Truckee Tahoe Aerial Tramway a decade ago, the transportation infrastructure was at or near failure mode (especially at key intersections).

As part of my research, I attended the regional transportation planning meetings and canvased many local business owners, gondola operators, other stakeholders in town and county government, and even some resort owners. Many of these individuals supported the idea in concept but brought to my attention the many hurdles in getting so many government and private entities on board, securing the permitting and funding, and overcoming the [not-in-my-backyard] syndrome. My responses to these objections or bottlenecks have always been:

If not this, then what? So far, I have seen no comprehensive proposals, let alone detailed plans.

If not now, then when? The current traffic situation has gotten so much worse since when I left that I wonder why people even bother to try to come to ski. It now seems to take hours to get from Truckee to Palisades Tahoe/Alpine Meadows. It can even take an hour to get across town. I know several long-term locals who are leaving the area.

~ Jeff Sparksworthy, creator of Truckee Tahoe Aerial Tramway

Local discussions of the tramway possibility have rearisen specifically around something Sherry McConkey [posted on Instagram] about needing to solve traffic. The water is a little warmer.

Jeff [Sparksworthy] was really the driving force, was a big cheerleader behind the force … When he moved, things stalled. I wanted to follow up and follow in his footsteps, but didn’t have nearly the time or effort. A coalition of other folks he’d put together disbanded without his central weight. With a little momentum, I’d be willing to jump back into it.

~ Ernie Dambach, founding partner of Tahoe Tech Group and current keeper of TTAT information

CENTRAL STATION: In the tramway vision, the main station would serve as an interchange between all the coordinating lines, color coded for different destinations. Courtesy rendering

It comes up all the time, this concept of gondolas. I haven’t spoken specifically with anyone on that effort. I think one of the challenges we have is having a direction and sticking with it. We’ve talked about a bus-on-shoulders [pilot] and we’ve done this effort to do the reversible HOV or bus lane [to help with Tahoe-area ski traffic congestion] … I just read a study that [Placer County District 5 Supervisor] Gustafson sent me from back in 1989 where the concept of a reversible bus lane on [state routes] 89 and 267 was initially launched. Thirty-four years ago, there were concepts.

I don’t want to diminish the gondola idea because we definitely need to think outside the box, but we feel like we have traction, support, and initiative behind the three-laning program [a reversible bus-only lane] that’s in the Resort Triangle Transportation Plan … We think that serves a number of different concerns and initiatives in the community, specifically evacuation … I personally love the gondola idea, it’s just we really need to stay focused on implementation.

We’re still open to those conversations. If you look beyond 30 or 50 years, absolutely. The more innovative we can be, the better for the region. When it comes to community dollars and staying focused on moving projects forward, our board is really committed to the three-lane idea.

~ Stephanie Holloway, deputy county executive officer for Placer County


  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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