D.C. Commuters Could Go Airborne

The city may build an aerial gondola to shuttle people into and out of its oldest neighborhood.
by | April 2016
(Rendering: Georgetown Business Improvement District)

One of Washington, D.C.’s toniest and most historic enclaves is exploring a novel way to shuttle people to and from the area: aerial gondolas over the Potomac River.

Georgetown, the oldest neighborhood in the city, is also notoriously hard to get to. It has no Metro subway stop of its own; the nearest stations are a mile away in either direction, including one in Virginia, across a busy six-lane bridge over the Potomac. (The story that Georgetown fought a Metro stop in the 1960s, to keep the riffraff out of the neighborhood, is an urban legend.) The neighborhood is tough for car owners too, with narrow streets and scant parking.

The gondola proposal started as a somewhat (ahem) pie-in-the-sky idea. But it’s starting to look like it might have wings. The cable car system, which would be similar to those used for mountain ski lifts, would ferry people from Georgetown to the Rosslyn, Va., Metro station just across the river. While passengers would see the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument from new vistas, the real goal would be to attract everyday commuters, not tourists.

“We want to connect Georgetown to the regional transportation network, and we’re looking at different ways to do that,” says Joe Sternlieb, the head of the Georgetown Business Improvement District and one of the biggest backers of the gondola plan. “We’re looking for ways to really make it easy to move between Georgetown and one of the Metro stations.”

Sternlieb and others have explored lots of possible solutions, including a streetcar to connect Georgetown with downtown D.C. But the gondola became an increasingly intriguing idea, he says. Unlike a streetcar, a gondola runs continuously, meaning passengers wouldn’t have to wait long to get on. And because the gondola runs nonstop, it can carry roughly five times as many passengers as a streetcar. Plus, construction costs would likely be far cheaper. That’s especially salient in a city that struggled for years with cost overruns and delays with its first modern streetcar line, a scaled-back project that finally opened to riders in February, some four years later than originally planned.

The gondola has a long way to go before becoming reality. D.C. and Arlington County, Va., are spending $35,000 apiece to study the idea. They’ll estimate what the ridership would be, what the project would cost, and how and where exactly it would be built. After that, dozens of federal, district and Virginia agencies would have to give the OK before construction could start.

But Sternlieb sees plenty of potential for gondolas, and not just for Georgetown. “The question isn’t, ‘Why are we studying this technology?’” Sternlieb says. “The question is, ‘Why aren’t we studying this technology? And where else can it be used?’”