Standing before a large audience Thursday in the Georgetown Theater in Washington, D.C., Mary-Claire Burick, president of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, opened by anticipating the concerns of the crowd.
“I was initially very skeptical of using gondola technology as an urban transportation method,” she said. The more she learned about the technology, however, “the more I saw it as a viable way to enhance regional transportation.”
Burick was speaking to residents gathered to hear the findings of a feasibility study on the Georgetown-Rosslyn Gondola, which draws its inspiration from similar systems in Portugal, Colombia and Germany. The study found no fatal flaws with the proposed gondola and determined the project is legally permit-eligible. According to projections, the gondola could have a minimum ridership of 6,500 passengers a day, taking commuters and visitors between the two densely populated neighborhoods for which it’s named, and cost between $80 million and $90 million to build, with a yearly operating cost of approximately $3.25 million.
The envisioned line is intended to solve one of the most vexing transportation problems in the D.C. metro area: crossing the Potomac River between the nation’s capital and northern Virginia. The historic Georgetown neighborhood bustles year-round with residents, students and tourists. Rosslyn has emerged as a cheaper and less-congested alternative to the city for businesses and young professionals. Traveling between the two neighborhoods, however, isn’t easy.
“The Key Bridge is one of the most congested and unreliable connections across the Potomac,” says Terry Owens, public information officer for the DC Department of Transportation. As the only roadway between Georgetown and Rosslyn, the bridge bottlenecks traffic coming from the two neighborhoods and several nearby highways.
The feasibility study suggests a gondola would significantly cut down travel times between the two neighborhoods and ease congestion on the bridge. The trip between Georgetown and Rosslyn, according to the study, takes up to 10 minutes by car and 20 minutes by bus, depending on traffic and wait times; walking takes up to 18 minutes. The gondola, by comparison, would take about four minutes.
For decades, one of the biggest obstacles for people traveling into and out of Georgetown has been the lack of a metro station. The neighborhood’s conspicuous absence from the metro system spawned an enduring myth that has survived frequent debunking — that upper-class Georgetown residents opposed a metro stop to keep out the riffraff from other parts of the city. In reality, Georgetown’s rugged topography and proximity to the Potomac made building a metro station too challenging and expensive. Meanwhile, the lack of a metro station has left the growing population in Georgetown cut off from the region’s primary mass transportation system.
Joe Sternlieb, president and CEO of Georgetown BID, believes the gondola can help change that.
“For the next 20 years or more, we’re thinking of this as the Georgetown metro station that the city never built,” he says. “The goal is to make it a seamless part of the regional transportation system … even if it is owned and operated separately.”
Gondola riders from Georgetown would disembark near the Rosslyn Metro Station, one of the busiest in the system. Riders could then transfer to the Blue, Orange and Silver lines, which travel west into Northern Virginia and east into downtown D.C.
To successfully integrate the gondola into the broader regional transportation system, according to Sternlieb, fare payment needs to be seamless. He cites the D.C. Circulator bus as an example, which utilizes the same Smart Cards as Metrobus and Metrorail even though the bus line is operated as a public-private partnership.
“The goal is to essentially make it a Metro fare,” Sternlieb says. “If a rider gets off at Rosslyn and … transfers to the gondola, going to Georgetown should be like adding one more stop to the fare.”
This kind of fare system would offer significantly cheaper rides than international gondolas systems, according to a chart in the study. Gondola fares in Cologne and London cost $7.25 and $14 round-trip, respectively, whereas the Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola would cost between $1.75 and $2.15 one way. Keeping fares low will be crucial for making the gondola a practical transportation method for workers and residents, as opposed to a novelty for tourists. Sternlieb admits a seamless payment system with other transportation systems is not guaranteed, however, and will require negotiations with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) if the project moves forward.
In 2013, WMATA released plans for building a Georgetown metro station by 2040, but the gondola feasibility study points out that the station’s planning and construction will be expensive and time consuming. The Georgetown station and its connecting tunnels under the Potomac will cost an estimated $2.5 billion in 2012 dollars — significantly more than the cost to construct the gondola. The necessary studies, permits and construction for the metro expansion will also take significantly longer to complete compared to the gondola. And with WMATA having trouble coming up with the money to address issues with existing Metro lines, it seems unlikely that the agency will be able to direct resources toward building new lines any time soon.
If a Georgetown metro station were completed, having both a gondola and Metro station in the neighborhood may create redundancies in the transit system. At that point, according to Sternlieb, the city would need to determine if the gondola was popular and supplementing mass transportation needs.
Local businesses appear open to introducing additional transportation modes that could bring more people into the two neighborhoods. The study predicts that hotels and restaurants, in particular, could benefit most from the added access.
“We see the gondola as not only a way for visitors to cross the river but for commuters as well, alleviating parking and traffic throughout the corridors,” says Erich Hosbach, director of sales and marketing at the Graham Hotel in Georgetown. The Graham is home to the Observatory bar, a popular rooftop spot that offers a bird’s-eye view of Georgetown and the Potomac. Hosbach believes the gondola could add to the experience of patrons. “Should we be able to see the gondola from the rooftop, I think it would be a great conversation piece.”
While the study found the gondola technically feasible, the realization of the project is still a ways off. An environmental impact study, along with other state and local approvals, will take up to four years to complete, and construction will take an additional two years. According to the study, the project will require “multijurisdictional collaboration” and a potential public-private partnership.
“The gondola feasibility study has been helpful in identifying potential ridership, estimated costs and regulatory steps,” says Owens. “There are a number of planning and engineering challenges to be resolved as the gondola project moves forward, and DDOT will continue to be available in a support[ing] role as the project explores potential connections to the District’s transportation system.”
Scott Rodd is a D.C.-based freelance reporter whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Observer, Think Progress and Salon, among other publications.