FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE GONDOLA PROJECT
What is the Georgetown Rosslyn Gondola project?
The gondola project is an effort by Georgetown and Rosslyn planners and leaders to improve access to jobs, and reduce congestion and air pollution in the region by connecting and strengthening the transit connection between these two important employment and residential centers with a wait-free, picturesque, and reliable, four-minute gondola ride across the Potomac river.
The project leaders hope to launch a federal Environmental Impact Study in 2018 that would set the stage for construction of a Georgetown-Rosslyn Gondola connection around 2024.
What is a gondola lift?
A gondola lift is a form of transportation that moves passenger cabins in the air suspended on a continuously moving cable that loops between two stations.
How does it work?
In this system, 23 evenly spaced cabins hang from a cable traveling at 12 miles per hour. When a cabin enters a station it is mechanically detached from the main cable and slowed to 1 mile per hour as it travels into, and out of the station. At this speed people - who walk at an average speed of 3 miles per hour - can easily walk into or out of the cabin. As cabins enter the boarding area, the doors open and passengers exit, then new passengers get on board. The doors close, the cabin accelerates, and is clipped back onto the cable for its trip across the river. The trip between Georgetown and Rosslyn will take four minutes.
Why has a gondola been proposed to connect Georgetown and Rosslyn?
Georgetown is the largest employment center in the District of Columbia that is not served by a Metro station. Between the university, hospital and commercial district, over 21,000 people work in Georgetown. In addition, over 20,000 residents and students live in Georgetown. Without a Metro station, too many workers, residents, and visitors rely on private automobiles to get to and from Georgetown - adding to regional congestion and air pollution. For many potential employees who do not own cars, Georgetown jobs take too long to reach to be convenient. The gondola would significantly expand the 30-minute transit shed (the geographic distance from which a 30 minute transit trip can be completed) to Georgetown jobs while inducing new transit ridership. The 2016 gondola feasibility study projected that 6,500 people per day would ride the gondola - more than use 20 existing Metro stations. The study also projected a lower capital cost to build than other fixed guideway transit options and a lower subsidy per ride than any other transit in the Washington region.
Rosslyn is one of the largest employment and transit centers in the region. It has 25,000 workers and nearly 14,000 residents. Through concerted planning, organizing and development, Rosslyn has been reimagining itself and going through a transformation over the last several years. Where in the past it was mostly known as a dense office park near the city, it is emerging as a vibrant city in its own right. In the coming decade improved transit connections for Rosslyn workers, residents, and visitors will help it build its brand, appeal, sustainability, and help fuel its growth.
A seamless gondola connection between Rosslyn and Georgetown would create mutual benefits by offering the strong amenities and features of each neighborhood to the other.
Who are the groups behind the project?
The idea for the Gondola came out of the Georgetown 2028 planning process - a 15 year strategic plan for Georgetown released in 2014 with the support of the Georgetown BID, Georgetown University, ANC 2E, the Citizen’s Association of Georgetown, and the Georgetown Business Association. The process to win support and funding to finish planning and building the project is now being led by the Federal City Council, Georgetown Business Improvement District, and Georgetown University. These groups, plus the Citizens Association of Georgetown and ANC 2E have all supported moving forward with an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to determine the impacts and mitigation steps needed to build the gondola. The DC government put money in its fiscal 2018 capital budget to begin funding the EIS.
How is this project being funded and who will pay to build the gondola?
The 2016 feasibility study was funded by a partnership that included the District of Columbia and Arlington County governments, the Georgetown and Rosslyn Business Improvement Districts, Georgetown University, and three private development companies with interests on both sides of the river.
It is anticipated that the Environmental Impact Study will also be funded by a coalition of groups. So far over $500,000 has been pledged by four different entities.
Financial planning for construction is part of the ongoing study effort, and nothing has been finalized. However, project planners anticipate a public-private partnership with city, state and federal funds as well as private and institutional funds to finance construction and operation of the system.
Is gondola technology safe?
Gondolas and other ropeways (a catchall term that includes chairlifts, gondolas, and aerial trams) are statistically the safest form of transit operating in the United States today. After aircraft, ropeways have the second fewest number of accidents per km of travel, with only one accident per 17 million km traveled. By contrast, cars experience one accident per 1.5 million km traveled. This safety record is perhaps even more impressive when you consider the locations where gondolas currently operate; primarily in ski areas and challenging high-alpine environments.
What happens to gondolas in bad weather?
Gondolas are designed to operate in all kinds of bad weather, including high winds. 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 3 times in the last five years. By contrast, buses and Metro shut down their systems whenever there are snow accumulates over a few inches.
What is the history of gondolas?
Gondola technology was invented by the mining industry in the mid-19th century. It was refined for passenger and recreation service during the late 19th and 20th centuries, and has been used successfully as urban transit around the world in the 21st century. Medellin, Colombia, one of the first cities to embrace gondolas as transit, now operates three lines that provide 30,000 rides per day. Mexico City recently opened a gondola line with seven stations, each of which was commissioned with iconic public artworks. There are over 40 cable transit systems operating around the world today, and more are coming online each year.
What are the landing sites for this project?
The EIS will determine the best alignment for the system. However, the feasibility study looked at over a dozen possible station sites and alignments and concluded that the best way to connect Georgetown and Rosslyn is on a straight line from 36th Street in Georgetown to Lynn Street in Rosslyn. The study suggested that the Rosslyn Station could be elevated over the roadway adjacent to the Metro plaza, while the Georgetown Station could be between the Car Barn and the Exxon Station on M Street.
What will happen to the Exorcist Stairs?
The Exorcist Stairs will not be affected. They provide an important connection between Prospect Street and M Street.
Who needs to approve this project?
The feasibility study identified 27 federal, state, and local agencies that will have some review responsibility over the project, with a significant, but smaller, number needed for approval. The EIS process will be used as the umbrella process for all required approvals. You can see a full list of the review agencies on page 38 of the feasibility study.
Why this technology instead of something else?
The community considered the likelihood of a new Metro tunnel between Rosslyn and Georgetown, as well as expanded bus, Circulator, and streetcar service over the Key Bridge during the Georgetown 2028 planning process. None of these alternatives is as efficient or cost effective as a gondola. The Metro option is about 19 times more expensive than the Gondola and would take over 20 years to realize if the funding were available. Adding more transit to the Key Bridge reduces its road capacity for cars, buses and trucks. So the gondola is the only affordable transit option that adds trip capacity without competing with existing roadway users.
What other transit proposals are being considered for Georgetown?
Georgetown leaders take transit very seriously, and support many proposals to improve access to the historic neighborhood. We support Metro’s long term plan for a new Metro tunnel to separate the blue line from Rosslyn to Union Station through Georgetown, however, it is still in the early planning stages. According to even the most ambitious WMATA estimate, the tunnel won’t be built until after 2040, and at a cost of over $11 billion.
The plan for a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown does not serve the university, hospital or west side of Georgetown and is estimated to cost as much as $550 million. We support this project but it also has many hurdles to overcome. Rapid bus routes are a possibility, but repurposing existing, general purpose, lanes to dedicated transit lanes is controversial and has reasonably high financial and opportunity costs. Any discussion of new bridges or surface rail across the river is highly unlikely due to the high cost. Nonetheless, the EIS will examine a range of alternatives and document their potential benefits and impacts.
What is the total cost of the project?
The estimated cost for the project is $90 - $110 million to build, and $3.25 million annually to operate.
Who will pay to operate the system?
Operations of all public transit in this region are paid with a combination of fare revenue, advertising, licensing, and public subsidy. The gondola is projected to require less subsidy than any other public transit in the region because of its projected high ridership and low operating costs. Current discussions on operating subsidies are focusing on seeking non-public sources wherever possible.
How much will it cost to ride?
The current goal is to integrate the gondola into the Metro fare system so that riders can make a seamless transfer between the gondola and Metro using their SmarTrip cards. Within that system, ending or beginning your trip in Georgetown would simply be calculated as an additional stop on the Metro system. For riders who are only using the gondola to cross the river there will be a single one-trip fare developed that is likely to approximate a single stop Metro fare - currently between $2.00 and $2.25.
Is the gondola just for tourists?
Emphatically “no!” The system’s primary beneficiaries will be Georgetown’s 40,000 employees, residents and students who have no direct quick connection to a Metro Station, or to Rosslyn’s employment center. It is also for Rosslyn’s 40,000 employees and residents to have quick access to Georgetown’s jobs, retail, and amenities. The gondola will provide the equivalent of a new Metro Station for Georgetown which is projected to be immediately busier than 20% of the existing stations. Tourists will certainly make up a healthy portion of gondola riders - as both Georgetown and Rosslyn are tourist destinations. The gondola, like the communities it will serve, will attract many different audiences with various reasons for making the trip.
What other infrastructure will be built as part of this project?
The gondola system needs two stations, one on either side of the river, and approximately three support towers--one in Rosslyn, and two in or near the Potomac river. The project may include a transit bus turnaround on M Street in Georgetown, a bike parking station, and possibly a bicycle/pedestrian trail from the Palisades and Foxhall to the Georgetown station. Sidewalks, crosswalks, and the connections to the C&O Canal Park and Georgetown Waterfront will also be studied for upgrades to accommodate increased pedestrian traffic brought by the gondola.