A gondola from Rosslyn to Georgetown? Is this some crazy tourist trap project? A vanity project for already-affluent Georgetown? The more information that comes out, the more it looks like a real transportation concept. While it might not be the one, most important transportation project in the whole region, it's a worthwhile way to help people reach jobs and shops and reduce single-passenger car trips.
A coalition led by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, Georgetown University, and the Federal City Council is leading the effort to plan and possibly construct such a gondola, and asked Greater Greater Washington to consider joining the coalition. Because we're a volunteer-driven organization, our volunteer Editorial Board and Advocacy Committee jointly heard a presentation about the gondola project. The two committees have agreed to GGWash joining the coalition, but since we're also about having a conversation with readers, we wanted to talk about why, including what we're excited about and what hesitations we have.
What's this gondola?
First of all, let's understand what the gondola is and is not.
It's not the boats in Venice, which are also called gondolas but are totally different.
It's not a ski lift where your legs are dangling off into space.
It's not like New York's Roosevelt Island Tramway where two cars, each carrying 125 people, go back and forth every 15 minutes.
Instead, it's a series of 23 small enclosed capsules, each of which holds eight to twelve people. They run on a cable moving at 12 miles per hour. When they get to a station, they are detached from the cable and slow to 1 mile per hour, which is easy to step on and off of.
Here's a video of some people riding the gondola in Medellín, Colombia. That city built three gondola lines to reach communities in the mountains which can't be reached by rail transit and not even easily by bus.
Why build a gondola?
There are 21,655 jobs in Georgetown, including 8,600 at Georgetown University and the hospital. This is the District of Columbia's largest employment center not served by Metro, and prospects for adding Metro are at best decades and billions of dollars away — current estimates put a second Rosslyn station and tunnel to Georgetown with new stations at about $2.5 billion, plus $8.5 billion more to extend that tunnel to Union Station.
Meanwhile, riders taking buses across the river have to contend with traffic on the Key Bridge and wait times of up to 12 minutes or sometimes more. A gondola, on the other hand, could have one end at the Rosslyn Metro station, over N. Lynn Street, and the other end right near the Exorcist Steps.
The Rosslyn station, the feasibility study claims, could be a mere 2 minute walk from the Metro platforms.
The station could be next to the Exorcist steps (not disturbing the actual steps) by the current gas station. It could have one exit at the top of the steps, on Prospect Street steps from the university, and another down on M Street, at one end of the commercial district.
Many more people would find themselves within a 30-minute transit ride to Georgetown, thanks to an easier and faster transfer from Rosslyn Metro:
Vehicles would arrive every 12 seconds to one minute depending on the time of day and offer a 4-minute-long ride. The technical feasibility study estimated that 6,500 people per weekday would ride the gondola. That's more than the bottom 20 Metro stations (though, I'd note, we shouldn't be satisfied with those stations' ridership!) And weekend ridership would be strong as well with the high demand in the commercial district on weekends.
Who would pay for this?
The study estimated that the gondola would cost $80-90 million to construct and $3.25 million per year to operate.
Assuming a bit of unexpected cost, the project team hopes to raise get $100 million from an FTA Small Starts grant, Georgetown University and other private entities, the DC government, and public and/or private entities in Virginia. Joe Sternlieb, head of the Georgetown BID, said, “This is a lower cost to construct than for any similar performing high capacity, fixed guideway system.”
The District would save $410,000 a year in Circulator operating costs by not running the Circulator over the Key Bridge; instead, it could turn around in Georgetown and riders who want to take it from Rosslyn would save up to 14 minutes by using the gondola and switching to Circulator. Georgetown University would also save money by eliminating a GUTS bus to Rosslyn, and the project team is asking the university to commit that money to gondola operations. Sternlieb said, “The anticipated cost per ride and subsidy per ride would be less than for any other transit mode in the region.”
Is this thing safe?
It seems so. According to the project FAQ, gondolas and other “ropeways” (like the other things at the top of this post, except the boat) are “statistically the safest form of transit operating in the United States today,” with one incident per 17 million kilometers traveled. That's compared to a crash every 1.5 million kilometers for cars. Only airplanes have a lower incident rate by distance.
They can keep operating in heavy snow (ski areas have extensive experience with that) and rain. The FAQ says,
Gondola operators usually only shut down the system when there are sustained winds of over 30 mile/hour. This isn’t because they are unsafe, but because the swinging of the cabins become uncomfortable for passengers. DC has experienced winds like this only three times in the last five years.
It probably would have shut down during the recent windstorms of March 2 which also shuttered the federal government, most area schools, and caused Metro to cut all rail and bus service to 12-minute headways.
Will the National Park Service ever allow this?
It'll cross the Potomac River, a protected federal resource. Will the Park Service say “No way, gondol-ay”?
The feasibility study identified 27 agencies, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services to the Federal Aviation Administration, that would have to be be involved. The next step is a full Environmental Impact Statement and a Section 106 review, which is the federal historic preservation analysis.
The team has spoken with most of these agencies already and say they are open to allowing it. For the federal government, typically it's not that you can never affect a protected historic resource but have to do a lot of analysis and work to mitigate the impacts.
The gondola would be close to the Key Bridge and not much higher, so from most vantage points, the gondola would not be very visible. Of course, if you're right under it, it would be.
Is there land for a station at by the Exorcist Steps?
Well, that's sort of a challenge.
Right now, there's a gas station there, which is slated to close. A developer purchased the land for $14 million in October 2016 and plans condos for the site.
The gondola coalition leaders are urging DC to buy the land (either by making a deal or with eminent domain) before the condos are built. It could earn revenue from the gas station until the gondola is built. The land could also offer a bus turnaround site for Circulator buses and a potential excavation site for a future Metro tunnel.
But this means the District government has to put some money behind this soon or possibly lose the best chance to do it.
Is it wise to spend public funds on Georgetown?
Isn't Georgetown a rich bunch of snobs or something? Why should DC do anything for them?
Well, a lot of the residents of Georgetown are quite lovely people, but that's not the argument. It's mostly not for them, but rather for the rest of the people in the city and region, including the employees of the university, the hospital, and the area businesses, as well as visitors, shoppers, and students. Universities and medical centers are some of the biggest employers in our region or others.
Coalition leaders point out that connecting Georgetown more directly to the regional transit network further reduces congestion and pollution for everyone, keeps Georgetown’s significant contribution to city’s tax base strong, and makes jobs more accessible to people who don’t live in the neighborhood.
What GGWash volunteer leaders like
We formalized our volunteer Editorial Board and created two new volunteer committees, the Advocacy Committee and Elections Committee, this year. We wanted to leave the decision to them about whether to endorse this project.
The Editorial Board and Advocacy Committee got a presentation on the gondola project from Georgetown BID staff. Overall, several members said they saw transportation value they hadn't entirely perceived before.
“I think there will be a definite improvement for those who take the current bus service, as well as Georgetown students. These are not to be underestimated in my mind,” said Edward Russell.
“Before today I hadn't given much thought to the gondola, but I was actually surprised by how much potential utility there is in the project,” Brent Bolin added.
“I hadn't really thought much about gondolas until a Jarrett Walker class. Walker's known for emphasizing service quality over technology choices, but in the class he did highlight a few interesting use cases for aerial transit, namely canyons,” said Payton Chung. “The university's elevation is particularly interesting; even when there is a Metro station, it will be very far below GU, and vertical travel will take a long time.”
What we're not sure about
The main questions here involve money, and there are two. First, will the project really be $80-100 million, and second, is that a good use of funds?
Patrick Kennedy noted that Portland's tram, which connects the waterfront to the Oregon Health and Science University up a steep hill, went over budget.
Technical merits aside, Portland's aerial tram got built based on a promise that the public contribution would be de minimis, and that OHSU and developers would pick up the tab for a relatively inexpensive project. However, the cost overruns incurred on it make the Silver Spring Transit Center look like a paragon of efficiency; if the ultimate costs and increased operating expenses had been known at the outset, I think it's questionable whether the tram would have ever been built.
We asked Will Handsfield, Transportation Director for the BID, about this. He argued that the Portland experience shouldn't be a deterrent here:
Their original project cost was a very low $28.5 million (first estimate to include architectural & project management services), nor did they build in contingencies which later spiraled the cost upwards, such as increasing steel costs and unanticipated architectural changes. There is a lot of blame to go around in that example about why the original budget was so low and when they should have been forthright with the public, but they delivered that project for $57 million, and the AirTram transformed the area, leading to development of a transit hub and a new commercial center along the Willamette Riverfront. We have been very cognizant of these issues, and at every step have chosen to assume the high range of project costs, while at the same time assuming low range on ridership with the mantra “underpromise and overdeliver.”
The other question is, would we spend this money on a gondola, or other things?
Volunteers generally agreed that they have higher priorities for funding, and some specifically cited the K Street transitway/streetcar. However, it's not like we have some pot of money that's definitely going to go toward transit, and need to prioritize right now. “If given $90 million I probably wouldn't advocate for spending it on the gondola, but if it means $90 million is spent on transit that otherwise wouldn't have been spent on transit I would support it and feel like GGWash should support it,” said Daniel Warwick.
In Virginia, there are systems where a defined budget is available for transportation, such as through the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, and local leaders have to divvy it up. There, roads and transit and other needs are competing for the funds, but there isn't a direct trade-off between, say, parks and transit.
In the District, capital budgeting typically combines all needs together. The mayor and council decide what to allocate capital dollars to out of the universe of all spending. To not build one transit project doesn't mean that there's more money for another transit project, necessarily. For instance, when the DC Council cut streetcar funds, it first put funds toward tax cuts (in 2014) and then mostly toward school construction (in 2017).
You might think those are better or worse uses of funds than a streetcar and this isn't the place to debate that project. Right now, though, there is no specific budget proposal on the table about the gondola. Until there is, it's academic to abstractly discuss what you might spend the money on or not. The money could be going to a development subsidy (and we could think that's good or bad), or a school renovation (which could be good or bad), or a tax cut (ditto) or bus purchases (ditto) or one of a zillion other things.
At some point in the future, there might be a clearer budget trade-off discussion happening, and our volunteers want to reserve the right to either agree or disagree with the gondola position on that budget issue. For now, all that may happen is DC could try to buy the gas station and the gondola project team will perform federal EIS and Section 106 analyses.
And for now, by consensus of the Editorial Board and Advocacy Committee, Greater Greater Washington has signed on to the gondola coalition. We're supporting seeing the project move forward through the EIS stage, so everyone can have more information to decide if it's possible, and worthwhile, to construct.