DC weighs gondola system to connect tony Georgetown with outside world

Leave it to our nation's capital to aim for the sky in trying to solve a traffic problem that originally cried out for an underground solution.

City planners are now looking at installing a gondola system, a feature more commonly seen at ski resorts, to span the Potomac River and connect the upscale communities of Georgetown and Rosslyn. The idea recently earned at least the interest, and funding, of Washington officials when the D.C. Council allotted $35,000 in their budget to study whether the aerial system would be feasible.

On paper, the plan entails a gondola being installed to connect pedestrians in congested Georgetown and Rosslyn, in Virginia's Arlington. It's being pushed by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which argues the closed-off neighborhood needs to get connected to the rest of the region.

"This system could be a game changer in making Georgetown more accessible," group CEO Joe Sternlieb told Fox News.

But critics say installing the multi-million-dollar transportation novelty -- just to connect one posh neighborhood with another -- is a bad move.

"Street cars in the sky -- that's how I like to think of it," said Marc Scribner, fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

It's undeniable that Georgetown, particularly by the Key Bridge which connects to Rosslyn, is often a snarled traffic nightmare, on weekdays and weekends alike. The fact that D.C.'s Metro does not stop in Georgetown contributes to the vehicle overload.

But Scribner questioned whether a gondola system would really do much to relieve that.

"The fundamental problem is this is a very inefficient way to move people around," he said. "You don't have the capacity to move people with gondolas like you do with other modes of transit."

Further, Georgetown is not giving up hope on eventually getting a Metro stop. Rather, they're looking at the gondola as a short-term solution; Rosslyn, unlike Georgetown, has a Metro stop.

"We are very much advocating for a Metro plan for 2040. The gondola system could be just an interim thing," Sternlieb acknowledged. "It's very expensive to build the Metro, but it's going to have to be done. It's going to constrain people's access to the job core of the city."

According to Georgetown BID, preliminary numbers project the gondola system would cost between $50 million and 80 million, while a new Metro stop would be about $3.5 billion.

Sternlieb stressed that he's "not advocating that we build anything" at this point, and he just wants to explore the "feasibility of a technology that might be helpful to our region's transportation system."

Right now, the D.C. Council is backing the initial study phase.

"The D.C. Council needs to explore all viable transit options to support the residents and businesses of the District," Councilmember Jack Evans told Fox News. "If the gondolas are an effective way to move people between Georgetown and Rosslyn, then it will be a low-cost way to provide some relief to our streets and the Key Bridge."

Officials suggest the idea is not so outlandish. Portland, Ore., for instance, while hillier, has a gondola system. And Sternlieb compared the study phase to a study green-lighted in 1999 to weigh the pros and cons of the now-successful D.C. Circulator bus, running from downtown Washington to Union Station and the Capitol.

"This is a very similar exercise to that," Sternlieb said. "And we won't know until we do this study. That's why we're doing it."

The gondola system was formally introduced in Georgetown BID's "2028 Plan," launched in 2013 to build an economically stronger and more sustainable Georgetown over the course of 15 years.

A Georgetown University spokesperson told Fox News the university also supports the efforts to study the feasibility of an aerial gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn: "As a stakeholder in the BID's Georgetown 2028 plan, we strongly endorse efforts to provide alternative transportation solutions for Georgetown."

The comprehensive study will analyze the logistics of the gondola, and determine which government agency could oversee and operate the system.