Is it a crazy idea to link Georgetown and Rosslyn by building a gondola over the Potomac? We’re about to find out. A study of the idea has begun in earnest, and by the fall we should know more about whether building one is possible and how many people might use it.

Could the iconic Key Bridge get a new neighbor? Images from the Georgetown BID unless otherwise noted.

Here’s what we know about the gondola thus far

The notion of an aerial gondola system linking Georgetown and Rosslyn first came to light in the Georgetown BID’s 15 year action plan, which was published in 2013.

In theory, a gondola could pick up passengers right at the Rosslyn Metro (even, some have speculated, with elevators right from the Metro station) and take them to spots on M Street and on Georgetown University.

Because the topography is very steep in this area (for example, there’s a big change in altitude between M Street and the university), a gondola might be able to offer more direct trips than even one on a roadway.

According to proponents, a gondola could quickly and cheaply provide transit instead of waiting for a Metro line to link Georgetown and Rosslyn, which is likely decades away from happening (if ever).

A gondola system can also accommodate a high capacity of passengers with efficient headways (more than 3,000 passengers per hour, per direction) and efficient travel time (approximately four minutes end-to-end).

Gondolas are a real transit mode in many cities

If a gondola system is to become reality in DC/Northern Virginia, one major hurdle to clear is that of public perception. The idea of a gondola system as a legitimate mode of transit is simply not one that many people take very seriously.

This is due largely in part to the fact that urban gondola systems are still a rarity here in the United States. In fact, there are only two active urban aerial systems in the country which are used for transportation purposes. Those systems are located at Roosevelt Island in New York City and Portland, OR.

That being said, there has been a significant uptick in urban gondola systems internationally since the year 2000, including three systems in Turkey, three in Africa (and a fourth currently under construction), and two in Spain

The Portland, OR aerial system specifically serves as a significant model of success. It’s ridership reached ten million only seven years after opening, and it serves over 3,000 riders per day.

Portland’s gondola, otherwise known as the aerial tram. Image from Gobytram.

Could a gondola work in Georgetown?

Contributor Topher Matthews, a Georgetown resident who participated in the Georgetown 2028 action plan process, says not to scoff at the idea:

Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That’s just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that’s before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road. Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible?

A study will answer many questions

We still don’t know all that much about how much a gondola would actually help move people between Georgetown and Rosslyn, and there are many regulatory and cross-jurisdictional challenges that some view as difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. This is due in part to the fact that agencies in both DC and Virginia would need to sign off on the project, not to mention the National Park Service, which tends to be jealous about keeping overhead wires away from its parkland.

A feasibility study, which ZGF Architects is leading, will aim to find out how many people might actually use a Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola, as well as to gauge the system’s ability to spur economic growth and development.

The study was funded from a combination of grants from DDOT, Arlington, the Rosslyn and Georgetown BIDs, and others. The study kicked off at a public meeting on July 7.

It will attempt to identify any major roadblocks or “fatal flaws” that would make the project a non-starter. These could include regulations or engineering requirements that are just too hard to get around.

ZGF will propose a couple of different layouts for the gondola. It will also study how the system could complement public spaces on either side of the river. From there, the firm will come up with strategies for logistics like funding and operating the system. ZGF will present its findings and recommendations this fall.

The bottom line is that the gondola is at least worth studying. If it turns out to be too costly in any respect, the idea can simply be dropped. But it might not be such a crazy idea after all.

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Andrew Fichter is an IT professional and freelance writer. He is passionate about biking, public transit, and sustainable development. In addition to transportation and urban development, he also writes about personal finance and lifestyle design.