The signature attraction of the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition held in New Orleans was MART (Mississippi Aerial River Transit), a $12 million aerial gondola transport system that connected the fair site on the East Bank of the Mississippi River with the West Bank (Old Algiers). For the price of a $3.50 round-trip ticket, fair riders were shuttled 2,500 feet across the Mississippi River in one of 53 six-passenger, teapot-shaped cars strung from cables suspended 320 feet above the river. After the fair, the gondolas briefly became part of the city's mass transit system.
The gondola project was the long-time dream of Mardi Gras float designer and native Algerian Blaine Kern, who envisioned a "combination thrill ride and practical commuter vehicle" to connect both banks of the river, according to a May 6, 1984, Times-Picayune article. During the 1960s, Kern partnered with architect August Perez III to organize MART, Inc.
Two decades later, the concept reemerged during plans for the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition (LWE). The system's initial price tag of $8 million was too steep for area banks. Kern pulled his financial backing from the project, but Perez continued with a consortium of investors to form MART/Perez Inc. The World's Fair and the system's projected $10 million in ticket sales during the first six months of operation gave impetus to the lagging endeavor. Perez found a French bank, Banque de L'Union Européenne of Paris, willing to underwrite the project. Though new to the Louisiana market, the bank was quite familiar with gondola systems. Upon the approval of a 60-year city franchise, the gondolas became a reality.
Construction of the custom-built aerial gondola system began on September 29, 1983, after a host of clearances from sixty-four state, city, and river agencies that shared jurisdiction over the project. Pomagalski S.A., of Grenoble, France supplied the equipment while MART/Perez Inc. constructed the gondola system.
To operate in a generally flat city, two 360 foot steel cable towers spaced 2169 feet apart were built to anchor the aerial gondola system. They were designed at a 20-degree tilt toward the river in order to protect the integrity of the Mississippi River levees. The gondola system included eight safety switches and a unique rescue vehicle known as a Pomabus; this was a self-propelled cart that could traverse a stopped cable and enclose a gondola so passengers could be removed and brought back to the terminal. Evidence suggests that the Pomabus never had to be used.
MART ranked with Disney's Space Mountain ride as the two best thrill rides in America during the six months of the exposition. Despite its popularity, the gondola struggled to attract the anticipated 3 million riders -- mainly because of the fair's low attendance. The fate of the gondolas was tied closely to the fair's success -- or lack of success. Riders either had to buy a fair ticket or possess a season passport before they could purchase a gondola ticket.
After the fair closed, the gondola system was promoted as a unique commuter system. MART officials hoped that West Bankers would ride the gondola daily to and from the east bank, especially to the Central Business District. A commuter could purchase a $25 unlimited (per month) ride ticket or a $50 ticket; the latter included daily parking at the lot adjacent to the West Bank terminal. West Bankers did not embrace the concept nor did the residents of old Algiers welcome the additional automobile traffic during the fair. Four months after the bankrupt LWE closed, its signature attraction ceased operation permanently.
While legal battles concerning loan payments, property rights, and ownership ensued, the last remaining structure of the fair remained idle. The New Orleans Dock Board began the process of having the entire system dismantled. In 1992, the passenger cars were sold, and in 1994 the US Coast Guard ordered the removal of the 360 foot steel towers and their cables. MART did not become a legendary landmark of the 1984 World's Fair, but for thousands of fairgoers it provided a lifelong memory.