Georgetown BID

The historic retail district of Georgetown will remain cut off from Washington's Metro system for decades. Is it time to embrace a loftier alternative?

To start, let's correct a bit of a D.C. urban legend: Retailers in the tony shopping district of Georgetown would like nothing more than to have at least one Metro station there in the future. For a neighborhood too long cut off from the region's central transit system—and not by some purposeful decision to keep out the rabble—Georgetown hopes to connect to the grid soon. Shop-owners and residents have pinned their ambitions to a future Blue Line path that would wind right through the historic residential neighborhood.

Those dreams are a long way from coming true, though. At a recent community meeting detailing the area's 15-year plan—dubbed Georgetown 2028—planners said that, while they're holding out hope for a Metrorail station sooner rather than later, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority isn't going to move on any such plans before 2040. Until then, Georgetown is focusing on the steps it can take now, from improving wayfinding throughout the neighborhood to planning the western-most leg of a citywide streetcar system.

"Make no little plans," said Daniel Burnham, architect of D.C.'s Union Station, which serves as the eastern locus of the D.C. streetcar system—a system whose first leg has yet to begin transporting passengers. Georgetown leaders seem to be taking those words to heart. The neighborhood has set its sights on something literally loftier: Yes, that's right, a gondola.

"Here's the thought experiment," says Joe Sternlieb, CEO of the Georgetown Business Improvement District. "For half the price [of a streetcar line], a gondola running down K Street could serve seven times the capacity. A gondola could deliver people at twice the speed at rush hour. It could be built in a fraction of the time."

The dream of a gondola crossing D.C. between Georgetown and Union Station is just that—a fantasy. It's not in the offing in the Georgetown 2028 scheme. What planners envision instead is a gondola route from Georgetown in D.C. to Rosslyn in Virginia, spanning the Potomac River.

Workers test gondola cars on the cable car link across the River Thames in London in advance of the London 2012 Olympics. London's gondola serves as an example of how not to build transit. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

This is a complex plan. To launch a gondola across the Potomac would require the participation of the District Department of Transportation on the District's side and WMATA on Rosslyn's end, where it would connect with the Blue, Orange, and Silver Metro lines. It would require the consent of the National Park Service, since a gondola would intersect or affect the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Rock Creek Park, and the C&O Canal. Plus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the organization with jurisdiction over the bed of the Potomac River, as well as federal and national-security bodies with interests in the relevant airspace.

That's why Georgetown is seeking participation from, well, everybody in its gondola feasibility study, for which it has already raised $130,000. By asking D.C. and Arlington County to put some "skin in the game," Sternlieb says, the BID might move more quickly from feasibility to action once the study is complete. At least one engineer has said there's no obvious reason why a gondola couldn't proceed, according to the community presentation. The estimated total cost for the study is $150,000–200,000.

The biggest impediment to a Georgetown gondola might very well be NIMBY opposition. That's one reason planners decided on a gondola route between Rosslyn and Georgetown instead of other possible routes, including another alternative gondola concept connecting Georgetown with bustling Dupont Circle. A gondola crossing the river could be situated alongside the Key Bridge, tucking away overhead wires and cars that will inevitably be seen as unsightly by some.

New York's Roosevelt Island Tramway is one of very few gondola systems in the U.S. (Paul Weber/Flickr)

To be sure, Georgetown would rather just build Metro stations—at M Street and Wisconsin Avenue Northwest, a major retail intersection, and at Georgetown University. That doesn't mean that planners think of the gondola as a stop-gap. "We could make a deal to say that we'll build a gondola and then, as soon as they build the Metro [stations], we'll take it down," Sternlieb says. "Well, you know what, we'd have the gondola for 25 or 30 years."

Georgetown could erect a working gondola line with minimal wait times in one year after a feasibility study passed, he adds (pending stakeholder approval). Given all the apparent advantages, it's worth asking why there are so few gondola systems anywhere else in the U.S. One college campus in Portland has built a gondola; both Seattle and Austin have flirted with building something like it. New York is mulling one as well (although Mayor Bill De Blasio's plans for an expanded citywide ferry service might dampen enthusiasm for the East River Skyway). While the gondola serves as effective public transit in some South American cities, in the U.S., it remains elusive.

In the nation's capital, it's not cost alone that's holding back sky cabs. Compared with a citywide streetcar program whose first leg is still creaking toward completion, or a Metrorail expansion that's a generation away at least, an urban gondola seems like a reasonable, even cost-efficient solution. Still, as frustrating as east-west traffic continues to grow in D.C., residents who dislike the prospect of overhead transit spanning residential neighborhoods may prove every bit as obstinate.

"Why aren't we building it?" asks Sternlieb. "If the only reason we aren't building a gondola is overhead wires, then we need to rethink our priorities."

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