A rendering of what riding a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn might look like.  Image by Georgetown BID.

DC’s 2018 budget, passed earlier this month, includes money to study how a gondola that would run between Rosslyn and Georgetown might impact the environment. That's a requirement for getting the gondola built, and the move gives the project more of a foothold with the DC Council.

The idea for the gondola first came up in 2013, when the Georgetown Business Improvement District included it in its 15 year action plan; BID CEO Joe Sternlieb reportedly was inspired by a gondola he saw in Portland.

(Yes, the boats on Venice’s canals are also called gondolas. But those aren’t under consideration in DC, at least not right now. The ones we’re talking about are trams suspended from a cable.) 

The idea is to fill the transportation gap between Georgetown and Rosslyn. Georgetown, of course, lacks a Metro station, and building one in the near future is unlikely.

A gondola in Portland, Oregon. Image by Ian Sane licensed under Creative Commons.

A gondola could be great, but making it happen would be tough

Greater Greater Washington contributor Topher Matthews, a member of the Georgetown 2028 task force, wrote about the ideas backing a gondola, as well as why people are skeptical, in May 2015.

A little over a year later, an earnest feasibility study got underway, with funding from the Georgetown and Rosslyn BIDs, Arlington County, DDOT, and other groups . Results from that came back in November, the gist being that no, the idea to build a gondola isn’t crazy.

It stressed that the number of areas in Northern Virginia that could reach Georgetown in 30 minutes or less would expand considerably with a gondola, including the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor to the west and Pentagon City and Crystal City to the south.

Here, the dark colors represent the places that are currently within a 30-minute transit ride of Rosslyn and Georgetown. The lighter colors show how a gondola would expand those options. Image by Georgetown BID.

It also projected daily ridership to be about 6,500 and noted that a gondola would be far cheaper than putting a Metro stop in Georgetown (while also providing a valuable connection to the Metro). Finally, the study said the Exxon station just north of where the Key Bridge meets M Street is the best place for a station in Georgetown.

In other words, a gondola could do a lot to ease congestion as well as make crossing the Potomac more realistic for people who don’t do it now.

And aside from these practical reasons to support a gondola, you can’t ignore that there’s something attractive about approaching Georgetown in a conveyance that seems to float across the Potomac River, with Georgetown University’s gothic architecture ahead and the classical revival Key Bridge to the side. It has potential to become a destination in its own right.

Of course, making this happen would not be easy. The project would need all kinds of federal approvals to move forward, and getting them would take years. Also, actual construction would cost somewhere around $90 million, and none of the money for that is lined up yet.

But none of that means the project isn’t happening, either

When it passed its new budget, the DC Council allotted $250,000 for what council chair Phil Mendelson has called “next steps.” While it’s obviously not going to put trams in the sky anytime soon, that’s a fairly big step up from what DDOT has previously spent.

The money will pay for an environmental impact study, which is one of the first requirements for the necessary approvals, WAMU’s Martin Di Caro and Martin Austermuhle reported. And while Arlington County said no to a gondola in February, it could re-engage if, down the road, the project starts looking more and more worthwhile.

“We agreed to create a capital project so they have something to work with,” Mendelson said. “It gives them a project they can lobby the council to add money to.”

“It’s a small amount of money, but it’s enough to keep us going,” Sternlieb told WMAL. “We’ve always had very strong support on the DC side of the river for this.”

Will Handsfield, the Georgetown BID's transportation director, noted that even if the gondola doesn't work out, the council's move to fund the study could be an important first step toward using the Exxon station for some other kind of transit project in the future. 

"Even if the site weren't used for gondola," he said, "it would be wise for the District to own it as it would be critical to the construction of the separated blue line from Rosslyn to Union Station, as well as for construction of the Georgetown Metro station"