The Case for Gondolas

Photo by Travis Wise.

Recently Arlington approved funding to contribute to the Georgetown BID-organized effort to study the possibility of constructing an aerial gondola from Rosslyn to Georgetown. Having secured funding for the whole study, the BID has just released an RFP seeking a party to actually conduct the study.

In light of this progress, GM thought it would make sense to re-publish his article from last May arguing why this study is a good idea:

As mentioned earlier, buried in the $13 billion budget adopted by the DC Council was a measure providing $35,000 to contribute to a study proposed by the Georgetown Business Improvement District to analyze the feasibility of constructing an aerial gondola from the Rosslyn Metro stop to M St. in Georgetown and terminating at the Georgetown University campus. This proposal has generated biting contempt from several quarters, but this criticism is misguided and ill-informed. We should absolutely study the possibility of constructing an aerial gondola between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

As documented by the Post, this idea is the brainchild of the BID’s CEO Joe Sternlieb. Having seen an aerial gondola in action in Portland, Oregon, Strenlieb became entranced with the idea of bringing this idea to Washington.

After taking charge at the BID, Sternlieb was quickly able to persuade all the relevant stakeholders that the idea was worth pursuing. It was adopted as a particularly eye-catching action item in the Georgetown 2028 long term planning study produced by the BID with significant community-input two years ago. Funding the study is a significant step towards completing that action item. The BID has raised $130,000 from donors and is seeking an additional $35,000 each from DC and Arlington to fund the anticipated $200,000 study. While Arlington has not officially approved its contribution, a county spokesperson stated that it was working towards it. (Full disclosure: GM served on the steering committee of the Georgetown 2028 study).

Why Some People Hate This Idea

From the beginning, this proposal has attracted the scorn of a certain transit advocates. The criticism boils down to the following essential points:

  • It’s too expensive and does not provide sufficiently improved transit services to justify the greater expense
  • It’s just a distraction from other less-attention grabbing transit projects, which will necessarily lose some money in order for the gondola to be constructed
  • The technology itself (and thus the project too) is nothing but “gadgetbahn“, i.e. new technology being sold as an improvement over current transit technology without actually offering any actual improvements over the current technology

In the abstract, the first two complaints are perfectly reasonable. A cost-benefit must be applied to any new transit project. And part of the analysis must take into account the limited overall funds available to transit. The third point, however, is not entirely fair as applied to aerial gondolas. By being able to easily traverse otherwise treacherous inclines, gondolas clearly provide transit capabilities that no other technology can. It only becomes “gadgetbahn” when it’s being applied in the wrong situation.

Why We Should Nonetheless Study Aerial Gondolas

Ultimately, each of these criticisms may be justified. But we won’t know that for certain without the study.

Of course that statement could be applied to any cockamamie plan (e.g. “We can’t know that jet-pack share won’t work until we study it”). But there are enough reasons to believe that this project could be worth it to justify a study to answer that question.

Here are those reasons:

  • Gondolas are, relatively speaking, cheap and quick to build. Sternlieb very much views this mostly as a stop-gap measure until Metrorail can be built to Georgetown. Rather than do nothing for 20-30 years as we wait for Metro, we could have this up and running in just a few years.
  • With cars arriving and leaving constantly, it would provide a quick and entertaining ride connecting Georgetown to the Metro.
  • It would eliminate the need for Georgetown University to run the GUTS bus between the campus and Rosslyn. This route serves over 700,000 riders a year. This would be the core of the gondola’s ridership. It would likely be much higher as many students, workers and visitors would shift to this route due to its convenience. Commuters to and from Georgetown would also likely add significant ridership to the line. Tourists, of course, would likely flock to it.
  • Yes, a bus-only lane from Rosslyn to Georgetown and then to Georgetown University would be cheaper and possibly as successful. But creating bus-only lanes through the heart of Rosslyn, across Key Bridge and down Canal Rd. is politically infeasible. DC cannot marshall the will-power to construct successful bus lanes in corridors where it is a no-brainer. What chance is there that it could construct a successful multi-jurisdictional bus lane where the case is not as clear cut?
  • Without bus lanes, there really isn’t any other technology (absent a new subway line) that can as easily connect people from Rosslyn to Georgetown and the university as a gondola would. Again, this is not proposed as areplacement of Metro, just a “temporary” measure as we wait several decades for Metro to be expanded.
  • It would hold the potential to become a tourist destination in and of itself.
  • Unlike other alternatives, a gondola would likely attract funding support from wider sources, like Virginia, Georgetown University, and the BID itself.

Will these arguments convince everyone? Probably not. But they are strong enough to justify a closer look. The study now will almost certainly move forward. Maybe it will be a clear and loud “no”? At that point, Sternlieb and the BID will drop it and move on. But maybe it will be a “yes”. Then we can have a fully informed discussion addressing each of the critics’ points. Roll your eyes if you must, but GM for one trusts Sternlieb. As the man that was largely responsible for the creation of the successful Circulator bus system, he’s earned the right to push the boundaries a bit.


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