Pacific Northwest cities consider air gondolas as public transport

By Robbie Webber

Within weeks of each other, Seattle and Kirkland, a Seattle suburb across Lake Washington, each made news by suggesting aerial lifts as alternatives for moving people through their increasingly crowded downtowns. Kirkland announced it was considering an air gondola system instead of waiting for light rail to be extended to the area by Sound Transit.

Anticipating considerable growth in the Cross Kirkland Corridor, city leaders are concerned that I-405 could become overburdened. The Cross Kirkland Corridor is being developed with biking and walking trails, but also has an easement reserved for future light rail development. It runs past the existing Google headquarters, which has plans to expand to an adjacent site, enabling it to double its 1000-employee workforce in the city.

Although a conceptual idea has been floated for a publicly financed east-west gondola route from Capitol Hill to the waterfront aimed at beating downtown Seattle traffic, a privately built and financed system seems to have more traction. Hall Griffith, owner of the new giant Ferris wheel on the waterfront, has discussed generalities with some business and city leaders. He said a gondola could move visitors from parking spaces near the state convention center to the shoreline.

Vancouver, BC, has also considered a gondola to serve the main campus of Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain. A feasibility study was done in 2010-2011 that concluded, “the gondola would generate substantial benefits to commuters and the region, estimated at 3.6 times its cost in dollar terms, but the cost to TransLink of building and operating it would be $12 million greater than continuing to serve the SFU campus by bus over the next 25 years.” Because the transit system has more projects than it can finance at this time, the gondola, while not outright dismissed, is a lower priority.

Portland, Oregon, built a successful tramway to move employees and patients from the end of its light rail line on the waterfront—also home to an Oregon Health and Sciences University campus—to the main OHSU hospital on top of a steep mountain. That project cut the commute to Portland’s largest employer from a 45-minute drive to a 3-minute tram ride. But the cost overruns and delays of the project have spooked other communities.

Few North American cities have aerial trams that serve as public transportation. Most are either tourist attractions or used at ski resorts. However, trams and gondolas are becoming popular in Europe, and there are more than 50 systems either running or planned in South America. Although aerial transit is more expensive than buses, it is cheaper than light rail and can be built more quickly. Aerial transit also avoids both driver and fossil fuel costs. In a radio interview discussing why Kirkland is considering the system, City Manager Kurt Triplett estimated construction of the proposed five-mile system would cost $50 million. Google is interested in better transit in the area, and might be convince to help pay for the gondolas, following the lead of OHSU in Portland, which covered 85 percent of the construction and operation of the tram.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.