Is building a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn feasible? There’s money in DC’s budget for next year to look into the answer, and there are enough practical reasons to think a gondola might work to make it worth looking into.

The study, proposed by the Georgetown Business Improvement District to determine whether building an aerial gondola from the Rosslyn Metro stop to M Street in Georgetown, would cost $35,000. When considered as part of the $13 billion budget, which the DC Council adopted this week, the project and its impact are relatively tiny.

The gondola proposal has generated biting contempt from several quarters, but the criticism is misplaced. Given the possible benefits, we should absolutely study the possibility of constructing an aerial gondola between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

Where the gondola idea came from

As documented by the Post, the gondola idea is the brainchild of the Georgetown BID’s CEO Joe Sternlieb. After seeing an aerial gondola in action in Portland, Oregon, Sternlieb 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 looking into. Two years ago, it took the form of a particularly eye-catching action item in the Georgetown 2028 long-term planning study, which the BID produced with significant community input. Funding the study is a significant step towards completing that action item.

The BID has raised $130,000 from donors and needs 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: I served on the steering committee of the Georgetown 2028 study).

Here’s why some people hate the idea

From the beginning, the gondola proposal has attracted scorn from some transit advocates. The criticism essentially boils down to the following points:

  • It’s too expensive, and the transit service it provides wouldn’t be enough to justify the cost.
  • It’s just a distraction from other less attention-grabbing transit projects, which would lose some funding to the gondola.
  • The technology itself (and thus the project too) is nothing but “gadgetbahn,” or new technology being sold as an improvement over what we currently have without actually offering any improvements.

In the abstract, the first two complaints are perfectly reasonable. We have to consider the costs and benefits of any new transit project, and an analysis of the gondola would need to account for there being limited funds for transit.

The third point, however, is not entirely fair. 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.

Criticisms withstanding, the gondola is worth studying

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

Of course, you could apply that statement to any cockamamie plan. “How could we possibly know a jet pack share wouldn’t work without studying it,” skeptics might ask with muse. But there are enough reasons to believe a gondola could actually be worth it to justify a study to answer the 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.
  • A gondola would make for a quick ride from Georgetown to the Metro, and it’d be entertaining to boot.
  • A gondola 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, and the people who use it would would form the core of the gondola’s ridership. That number would likely climb, though, as many students, workers and visitors would start using the route out of convenience. Commuters to and from Georgetown would also likely add significant ridership to the line. And 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 Road is politically infeasible. DC cannot marshall the will power to construct successful bus lanes in corridors where doing so 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 and absent a new subway line, there really isn’t any other technology that can as easily connect people from Rosslyn to Georgetown and the university as a gondola would. Again, this is not proposed as a replacement of Metro, just a “temporary” measure as we wait several decades for Metro to be expanded.
  • A gondola 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 at what it’d take to build a gondola.

The study now will almost certainly move forward. It’s possible that the results will make it clear that a gondola isn’t worth it, in which case Sternlieb and the BID would drop it and move on. But it’s also possible it will show a gondola to be feasible, and at that point, we could have a fully-informed discussion to address each of the critics’ points.

Roll your eyes if you must, but personally, I trust 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.

A version of this post ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.