Tramway to Mt. Wilson : Altadena Looks Up for Answer to Fiscal Prayer

Times Staff Writer

The idea came to Barney Davis about three years ago, as the Altadena civic leader was engaged in the vexing pursuit of ways to increase business and tax revenue in the hillside community.

"There was no buildable land to speak of," said the retired insurance broker, who is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and an alternate on the Town Council. "But there was all this land rising vertically north of the town."

This wasn't "buildable" land either, of course. It was a broad stretch of the Angeles National Forest, which looms over the town like a green wall. Sweeping from the northern boundary of the town all the way up to the jungle of broadcast towers on the summit of Mt. Wilson, 5,710 feet above sea level, the forest gives the town its woodsy aspect.

Davis' idea was to squeeze some revenue out of that sylvan scene while barely laying a hand on it. "I'd like to see an aerial tramway built from Altadena to Mt. Wilson," Davis said.

As described by Davis, the proposed four-mile tramway would be the longest in the United States, the third longest in the world, offering a breathless 15-minute ride to the top of the mountain. "One span would stretch 7,000 feet between two towers," said Davis, who has the squinting, far-seeing gaze of a cavalry scout. "Imagine what a ride that would be."

So far, Davis' scheme has received some tentative support from the Chamber of Commerce, which sees the tramway as a possible answer to the unincorporated area's fiscal prayers, and the U.S. Forest Service, which wants to upgrade the Mt. Wilson summit as a recreational site. It also has elicited support from hang gliders, who sail off Mt. Wilson.

But it has also aroused icy skepticism from some of the town's citizenry. "I think it's a stupid idea," said Frank Bridal, president of the 14-member Town Council, which serves as an advisory board for the county.

"It's just not practical or desirable." The council's five-person executive committee has already reacted negatively, he added, though the council itself has yet to address the plan.

The tramway was first proposed by Metromedia Inc. in the late

1960s. The company also planned a petting zoo and other family amusements near its broadcast tower on Mt. Wilson, but it abandoned the idea.

Traffic Generator

Bridal's big objection is traffic. "Down at the end of the line are the people who just live there and have businesses there," Bridal said. "For them, the tramway would simply bring a lot of traffic. It's not a feasible idea for a residential community." The plan could also represent an environmental hazard, exposing the forest to cigarette-smoking tourists, and possibly even a financial liability to the town, Bridal added.

Davis has consulted with Nick Portman, a Georgia-based tramway engineer, who visited the proposed site two weeks ago. "It's technically possible, and I think it would be profitable, too," said Portman, who has built tramways in Switzerland and the United States.

Portman proposes that the tramway be built in two sections, stretching from the northern end of Lake Avenue, across three or four towers, to the Idlehour campground, and then swooping 7,000 feet, across Eaton Canyon, to the Mt. Wilson summit. It would travel 4,000 feet vertically. Portman estimates that the total cost of the tramway, including two 80-passenger cabins, would be between $9 million and $10 million.

"No existing tramway that I know of has such a big area to draw its customers from," said the Swiss-born Portman. He proposes a $9.50 round-trip fare.

Prohibit Advertising

Davis says that traffic could be controlled by charging stiff parking fees and by prohibiting tramway investors from advertising the facility as a major amusement. "We wouldn't let the red-hot investors come in and advertise the tramway like Universal Studios," he said.

Chamber of Commerce member Tom Joyce, a real estate broker, is looking into funding possibilities. The group could use either state-backed tax-free bonds or private venture capital, he said. "We'd love to raise the money in the community," he said. "If we could get each resident to donate a couple of thousand dollars, we could do it."

Chamber of Commerce President Marge Craven emphasized, at the group's monthly meeting on Tuesday, that the plan was "still in its embryonic stages."

But the group's interest has been aroused by the tramway's spin-off business opportunities, she said. "There are a lot of empty buildings on Lake Avenue (the town's central commercial strip), and we've been brainstorming to draw new merchants," she said. "The tramway could bring in support businesses--motels, camera shops, restaurants, snack shops."

She added that Altadena is confronted with shrinking county funds and increasing service needs. "We have problems with roads, trees, graffiti," she said, "and not enough county dollars to take care of them." One suggestion is for the tramway to be organized as a public corporation whose proceeds would accrue to the community.

District Ranger Terry Ellis warned that the community would itself have to finance an environmental impact report, which he estimated as a $100,000, two-year job. The earliest that work could begin on an aerial tramway, he said, would be 3 1/2 years from now. The tramway could be built, he added, "only if the town of Altadena wants it."

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