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Texas is planning a new streetcar to El Paso, abandoning the original design

Plans to put the Wyler Aerial Tramway into operation could soon be implemented, but the original tram will not be repaired, but a new one with improvements will be built at a nearby site.

Many El Paso residents remember boarding the bright, amber-colored cable cars, enjoying the scenery of the Franklin Mountains, and ending up with an incredible view of the towers on Ranger Peak.

Locals' pride in the tram led to public outcry in 2018 when Texas Parks and Wildlife closed it out of an abundance of caution, declaring it no longer suitable for public use.

Now, six years and one feasibility study later, there is some potential progress.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, in collaboration with the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (CRRMA), is moving closer to putting the tram back into service – an estimated $36 million project.

According to its website, CRRMA is a political subdivision of the state of Texas created by the El Paso City Council. The agency has led several transportation projects in the city, including the El Paso streetcar and aesthetic improvements along Interstate 10 and Airway Boulevard.

Raymond Telles, executive director of the agency, said CRRMA is leading the design and construction process.

“This project is real,” Telles said. “It’s not just an idea; it’s actually happening.”

The project consists of three phases, he said.

First improvements to the tram base, then a new visitor center and finally the tram itself.

Designs and financing for phase one of the project are 100% complete, Telles said. Construction work could begin in just a few weeks. The first phase will lay all the groundwork for the streetcar and improve the road to the streetcar on McKinley Avenue.

The shared renderings show several new features: a ring road, more parking, shelters, a bus stop for school tours and even a planned amphitheater.

Now that funding is in place, this part of the project can move forward.

“We have been to parliament three times so far,” said Telles. “To date we have received almost $20 million from the legislature.”

That means $16 million in state funding is still needed to complete the tram, and costs could change once construction begins.

When it came to funding, state Rep. Lina Ortega was a big advocate for streetcar funding, Telles said. However, Ortega will not seek re-election in 2024. Despite her departure, Telles remains confident that Texas lawmakers will approve the remainder of the funds needed to complete the project.

“The rest of the delegation supported this,” he said. “I know they will continue to push this forward even if Rep. Ortega leaves.”

Ortega's chief of staff responded to an email requesting more details, saying: “The regional mobility authority Camino Real will soon publish design plans for Phase 1 of the project in order to secure a contractor for the project.”

The request for proposals for a contractor will most likely be released in the next few months, if not weeks, Telles said. Construction of the first phase would be completed within 18 months of work commencing, allowing visits to the visitor center and eventually the tram to begin.

Telles said the original Wyler Aerial Tramway will not be restored; Instead, as part of a feasibility study, Texas Parks and Wildlife decided to start from scratch and build a streetcar exclusively for the public.

“You have to remember that the original tram was designed to serve the towers,” Telles said. “It was never intended for the public.”

Built in 1959, the Wyler Aerial Tramway, named after El Paso radio and television pioneer Karl O. Wyler, served as a maintenance access for television transmission towers until it was donated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1997.

The department reopened it to the public in 2001 after renovations and operated the streetcar for nearly two decades. The tram carried around 45,000 visitors each year.

The designs proposed by CRRMA include a new tram line that runs almost parallel to the old one. A new base station is also planned. Instead of connecting to the transmission towers, the tram will end at a new observation deck where visitors can enjoy spectacular views of two countries and three states.

“Ranger Peak is not particularly friendly to the public,” Telles said. “It’s a retrofitted surgical tower where the public can hang out and enjoy the views – there are even radiation shields.”

The new tram will also have larger cable cars, Telles said. Designs for the streetcar itself are not yet complete, but Telles said he envisions cars large enough to carry 15 people each.

When asked about a possible completion date, Telles said it's hard to say, especially given the legislative funding gap.

“We still have a few years left, but we have 100% of the funding for phase one, so this is a big step forward,” he said.

With only a few different companies building trams around the world, the process will be difficult, Telles said, but the payoff will be worth it.

“That’s one of the things that makes El Paso special,” Telles said. “So if we open up a tram and allow kids who might not be able to hike all the way to the top of the mountain, it will open up that view for so many people.”

Proposed design renderings for the tram route: (SLIDE 10) POINT 6 – Wyler PPT (crrma-produktion.s3.amazonaws.com)

Proposed Design Renderings for Phase on (SLIDE 5) Wyler Tramway Phase I Project – Construction Advertising Permit 02/14/2024 (crrma-produktion.s3.amazonaws.com)

Anna Harden

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