Mar 21 2007

Space Center gets money for trams

Huntsville Times

By KENNETH KESNER

The steel skeleton of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's new visitors complex, which includes an "intermodal" transport terminal and the exhibition hall for the restored Saturn V rocket, can be seen rising next to the museum.

Invisible, for now, is a system of trams that will carry visitors from the new building to parking lots, the museum and other areas of the center. The U.S. Department of Transportation last week provided $226,710 for the project as the second installment of $1 million for the trams to be awarded over four years, said Space Center CEO Larry Capps.

The Space Center plans to buy two trams initially and have them running when the visitors center opens in November or December, Capps said. Manufacturers are still submitting proposals for the project, but it is expected each tram will have a van-like front car pulling open-sided cars, carrying 50 or 60 passengers when fully loaded.

The tram project was added in 2006 to a $12.9 million Federal Transportation Authority grant awarded to the Space Center in 2001, he said. The original grant - which requires the Space Center to provide a 20 percent match in funding - was to build the bus and transportation terminal, upgrade the bus maintenance facilities and for other infrastructure improvements.

Capps said they are certainly thankful to Congress for the $1 million to get the little buses rolling, but he pointed out the original request was for more to take the tram service farther.

"Eventually, we would like it to go all the way from here to the Botanical Gardens," he said.

That will take another $1.3 million. The Space Center asked for that in 2007 and plans to ask again in its 2008 budget request to Congress, Capps said.

Paula Steigerwald, CEO of Huntsville Botanical Garden, pointed out Tuesday that they have more than 300,000 visitors a year and the Space Center has more than 400,000.

"To be able to tie the two together, we see all kinds of possibilities," she said. "It would be a huge thing."

Within a family or group of tourists or other visitors there will be some people who want to see the Space Center, some who want to visit the gardens and some who would like to visit both, she said. The tram would make it easy.

"All we're waiting for is funding," Steigerwald said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby lauded the idea in a statement announcing the recent funding.

"Both the Space and Rocket Center and the City of Huntsville's Botanical Gardens are important components of North Alabama's tourism industry and economy," Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said. "As North Alabama continues to grow, we must ensure that the area is prepared for the increasing number of residents and visitors to the region.

"The tramway will provide visitors access to both attractions safely and easily while reducing traffic congestion in the area."