D.C., Northern Virginia Go For Gondolas: The Answer to Urban Congestion?

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An Aerial Tram gondola in Portland, Oregon's South Waterfront. 

The guffawing in the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia has stopped. A proposal to set aside one neighborhood’s long-held dream for a subway stop in favor of an option usually associated with alpine ski runs got serious traction recently when the Arlington, Virginia, County Board joined the District of Columbia City Council in agreeing to move forward on a gondola system study.

Using gondolas to traverse the Potomac River has to be the quirkiest idea available to relieve congestion in one of the region’s notorious traffic bottlenecks. But the United States is far behind Europe and South America in using gondolas to cross short spans or to solve other transit woes, particularly in urban areas. Although gondola systems are often treated as fantastical ideas in a country that remains fixated on traveling by car, the technology has sparked glimmers of interest in areas like Washington, D.C., where transportation problems are plentiful, but transit dollars are in short supply.

Famous as the home of the wealthy and well-connected, Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood has long been searching for ties of another sort: a faster way to get across the Potomac to the nearest subway stop in the Rosslyn area of Arlington. A Metro station in Georgetown was axed decades ago thanks to geologic complexities. (While the upscale neighborhood’s apprehensions that a subway stop could bring the city’s African American poor to their doorsteps have often been cited as the definitive reason for the lack of a subway stop, fear did not stop the Metro. What ultimately did sink the plan was that the engineering technology of the 1960s and 1970s could not rise to the challenge of tunneling through the granite bedrock, among other problems.) So today, residents, students, commuters, and tourists cross the Key Bridge on foot, by bike, bus, or car. No matter what the means of travel, the span becomes jammed and chaotic during rush hours.

The gondola idea originated with the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which enshrined it in a 15-year plan along with 40 other transportation recommendations. Not only did the group help convince the two municipal governments to contribute $35,000 each to a feasibility study, they also managed to persuade Georgetown University and several area businesses to chip in as well.

In the United States, gondolas are synonymous with ski resorts. But they have provided ways for cities elsewhere to provide “first-mile/last-mile” connections to other transit hubs like subways. Where gondolas have been embraced, they have been embraced with a vengeance.

South America has seen the some of the fastest growth, with Medellin, Colombia, among the earliest adopters.

According to Steven Dale, a founding president of Toronto’s Creative Urban Projects and creator of gondolaproject.com, an industry primer, integrating gondolas into a municipality’s overall transit system is a relatively new phenomenon. “We’ve seen it grow at a pace that is really unmatched in the history of public transportation,” says Dale. “The interest from the American market has taken off to a level that we have never seen before.”

Gondolas are “cable-propelled transit … that move people in motor-less, engine-less vehicles that are propelled by a steel cable.” Right now, only two locales in the U.S.—Portland, Oregon and New York City (where an aerial tram, a close relative of the gondola, runs across part of the East River to connect Manhattan to Roosevelt Island)—currently use the electricity-powered technology. Gondola proposals are in the works in a number of urban areas, including metro Atlanta, New York, San Diego, and St. Petersburg, Florida.

Transit advocates view the technology as an important component of a city’s overall transit network. Despite the common perception in Washington that gondolas would be just another attraction swarming with tourists, Will Handsfield, Georgetown Business Improvement District’s transportation director, says that the goal is move the neighborhood’s more than 20,000 workers faster. A gondola system could transport upwards of 7,000 people per hour—and more efficiently in an area where roads are congested and parking is scarce. “It is pretty user-friendly,” says Handsfield.

Another advantage is shorter wait times—because gondolas run continuously, wait times can be counted in seconds and overall travel times are just a few minutes. Dale says, “It would definitely get you to your destination faster than a bus, subway, light rail, or a car.”

With declining tax revenues available for transportation, operating a gondola system has the potential to be more cost-effective than a subway or a bus due to lower energy demands, maintenance, and labor costs. The pre-study estimated capital-only costs for the roughly one-mile-long District-Northern Virginia gondola range from about $40 million for the gondola cabins, other equipment, and some construction impacts to roughly $80 million including other real estate and architectural considerations.

“Funny that people look at [a gondola system] as a fantastical idea,” says Gabe Klein, the former director of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation. “You could also look at it as fiscally conservative, low impact, and having a high return on investment, potentially.”

So are gondolas the answer to America’s transportation problems? Not quite. Gondolas have certain drawbacks. The systems are best-suited to short, straight-line travel across bodies of water, valleys, or hillsides.

Then there are the political battles to come. That both the District and Arlington officials signed onto the study is an encouraging sign of interest in a fractious region where municipal parochialism often trumps the greater transit good. But where some Arlington gondola supporters see a fast way to get across the river, opponents see a tourist attraction, with no real value for residents. In Seattle, tepid support from city officials has sidelined two gondola proposals.

With a renewed appreciation for urban living fueling a zest for transit, the time for gondolas may have arrived. But wider adoption of gondola systems may also depend on the availability of federal funding for projects to supplement whatever dollars municipalities can scrounge up. St. Petersburg is hedging its gondola bets on a $40 million Department of Transportation “Smart Cities Challenge” grant.  

Municipalities could also secure funding for gondola systems through several other existing federal transportation programs, such as the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant program. (The FTA, however, is largely unaware of the recent surge of interest in gondola projects.)

Typically, federal transportation officials’ interest in funding one mode of transportation over another shifts from decade to decade. In the 1970s, the focus was on subway systems; in the 1990s and early 2000s, the attention was on light rail. “The feds … haven’t been interested in exploring transit connections via gondola, I expect, because the application of [the technology] is fairly narrow and not broadly applicable,” says Handsfield of the Georgetown business group. “They try to spread around the wealth and the applicability to suit a lot of people.”

The District of Columbia-Arlington, Virginia, gondola study is currently slated for completion by the end of the year.

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