Waterfront Trams: A Step Above Stairs

One of the key features that defines the beauty of the Finger Lakes Region is the miles and miles of steep, cliff shoreline that provide dramatic landscape panoramas from the land, sea and sky. Every lake in the region, from Skaneateles to Canandaigua and beyond, has miles of shoreline that can be classified as “High Banks,” loosely defined as “cliff-like property having a vertical drop exceeding 15 feet at a 20-degree angle or greater.” Some properties have shorter runs to the water, while others have runs of 100 to 200 feet – or longer. These steep shorelines are often found more frequently towards the southern end of the Finger Lakes, but can be found on some of the northern shores as well, (like Keuka Lake, for example.)

The views from these properties are breathtaking, but often provide unique challenges when it comes to waterfront access. Depending on the terrain, roads or footpaths can sometimes be installed, often requiring a series of switchbacks to reach the shoreline. At times these roads may be shared by multiple property owners, or maintained by a homeowner association. More often than not, stairs (or a series of staircases) are installed to navigate the hill. The stair systems installed can be as simple as a single staircase with a few steps to a maze of staircases and connecting platforms traversing a wide swath of the cliffside landscape.

Lately, more lakefront property owners are installing tram systems to compliment, or even replace their existing stair systems. They are finding that the tram systems not only give them effortless and convenient access to their waterfront, but the systems increase personal safety immeasurably compared to stairs. In prior years, most trams installed have been more of the “homemade” variety, installed by creative homeowners with little design or safety experience. Today, a number of reputable companies, including Finger Lakes Tram, are building high-quality, engineered systems with the latest in safety features.

Tram systems available today require little maintenance and are often designed to last 25 years or more. Typical stair systems, on the other hand, require yearly repair, and even with annual maintenance, they deteriorate and become less safe before having to be completely overhauled or replaced in 10 years on average. According to realtors in the area, tram systems “instantly increase” the value of the property, often as much as the cost of the tram system itself.

A lakefront owner from Canandaigua installed a 260-step stair system, complete with nine staircases and five connecting platforms to access his waterfront. The following year he installed a tram system. “The first time we walked down to the boat and forgot the boat keys we realized we needed something else!”
So what’s the downside?

Reputable tram systems cost more to install than stairs, initially. A typical 100-foot, 45-degree tram system can cost $40-50K to install, compared to $15-30K for a professionally-installed stair system. Yearly maintenance is minimal, however a yearly safety inspection and check-up is highly recommended. Also, the permit process in some areas can be challenging, mainly due to the fact that the technology is not as familiar to some town governments as it is to others.

There will always be opposition to any property development on lakefront properties, however tram systems, in general, create less environmental and visual impact than stair systems. In the long run, they are less expensive to operate and do not visually deteriorate as stairs do. Trams also help to maintain and increase property values in a town. Combine these factors with the increased safety and you can see why more towns and property owners are welcoming the tram system as a superior alternative to stairs.

Tram systems are not just for property owners who want better access to their boats. Recently, a homeowner on Seneca Lake installed a tram system to connect his parking area up on the roadside to his cottage, located down by the waterfront. This owner had owned the cottage for many years, but due to deteriorating health issues for both him and his wife, they were finding it increasingly difficult to walk down the stairs to get to the cottage. In fact, they had decided that if they didn’t do something, they would be forced to sell.

In the summer of 2008, they had a tram system installed. In doing so, they made sure the system was 100 percent wheelchair-friendly, not just for themselves but also for a relative who had been unable to visit the cottage due to a medical condition. One week after the install, this relative was able to traverse the 60-foot hill for the first time, watch the boats from the dock, and share a backyard barbecue for an afternoon. Another relative commented to the tram installers, “You don’t realize what a good thing you have done here.” The homeowners plan to get many more years of enjoyment out of the cottage, and will be able to watch their grandkids as they enjoy the place as well.

Finger Lakes Tram was started in 2007 when a small engineering company in Macedon realized a need in the area for a high end, local, tram system supplier. For more information, call 315-986-1937, or visit the website at fingerlakestram.com. Another company that may be helpful is Lakeside Trams, www.lakesidetrams.com.


by Shawn Ritchie