If the District and Arlington were to decide to build a gondola to connect Georgetown to Rosslyn, it would be both a feasible and legal endeavor, according to a study released Thursday.
Leaders in both jurisdictions have floated the idea of building a cable-propelled transit system over the Potomac River to ease traffic on the Key Bridge and allow people to travel more quickly between Washington and Virginia.
The proposed transit system still faces questions and hurdles, but the two local governments, Georgetown University and other entities pooled about $200,000 to conduct a feasibility study exploring how a gondola would operate, who would use it and whether it would comply with federal aviation laws. The Georgetown Business Improvement District, which has spearheaded the efforts, contributed $75,000 to the study.
ZGF Architects conducted the study. A committee of representatives from the District Department of Transportation, Arlington County and other agencies oversaw it.
The study determined that a gondola would have “no fatal flaws.” It also projected that the gondola would serve at least 6,500 passengers a day and could improve transit options for at least some commuters.
“When you’re not immersed in this technology, a gondola can sound sort of fanciful and not like a real technological possibility,” said Mary-Claire Burick, president of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District. “But it really does bear consideration. It’s not just a fanciful idea. It has the potential to be a model.”
The gondola was formally pitched in the Georgetown 2028 plan, a 15-year strategic plan released in 2014. Georgetown, while a dense and popular neighborhood, isn’t served by a Metro station. It was once the city’s go-to place for high-end food and entertainment, but now faces competition from neighborhoods like Shaw and the 14th Street NW corridor.
The Georgetown BID sees more transit options as a way for the neighborhood to compete. Any Metro station in Georgetown probably wouldn’t happen until about 2040, according to Metro officials.
Proponents of the gondola argue that it is far cheaper and quicker to build than a Metro station.
According to the study, a gondola system would cost between $80 million to $90 million to construct, with annual operating costs of about $3.25 million. These calculations were based on the costs of other urban gondola systems, like those in Portland, Ore., and New York’s Roosevelt Island.
By comparison, it cost $103.7 million to build the NoMa infill Metro station, which opened in 2004.
“We face a lot of competition, and we think transit can help,” said Joe Sternlieb, president of the Georgetown BID.
On the D.C. side, the study proposes a gondola station around the 3600 block of Prospect Street NW, between M and N streets. It would likely be no higher than 150 feet above the Potomac River, allowing clearance for helicopter and airplane traffic. In Virginia, it would take passengers to the Rosslyn Metro station.
The line would have about 24 cabins that each would hold about 12 people. The gondola cabins would travel in an oval and would pick up passengers every 20 seconds to a minute, Sternlieb said.
The feasibility study estimates that it would take passengers about four minutes to cross the Potomac River on the gondola.
The pricing hasn’t been determined, but fares would likely align with other regional transit options. Burick and Sternlieb said they want it to serve residents and workers, but also think it would draw tourists to the neighborhoods’ hotels and restaurants.
“Just think of it as a Georgetown Metro station,” Sternlieb said. “We’re planning this for the people who live and work here, so if we plan this well, tourists will want to use it as well.”
The study is one of the first steps in determining whether the project will move forward. If city and Arlington County leaders decide to proceed, they would need to decide which government agencies would oversee it. The project would also need approval from several government agencies.
Libby Garvey, chair of the Arlington County Board, said county staff would review the results of the study.
“We wouldn’t have funded the study if we weren’t willing to consider it,” she said. “It’s just preliminary, but are we willing to consider it? Absolutely. But have we made a decision? Absolutely not.”
The gondola project would also require an environmental impact study. The entire approval process will probably take three or four years, and construction could take another two years.
“Whether or not we do this, I think you are going to see a proliferation of urban gondola transit in America over the next 20 years out of necessity,” Sternlieb said.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that the Georgetown Business Improvement District contributed $90,000 to fund the feasibility study. It contributed $75,000 to the study.