It’s the mass-transit proposal so ludicrous (to some) that even the Arlington County Board members have told proponents they have no interest.
But is the Georgetown-to-Rosslyn gondola idea really dead?
The issue was brought up in a May 2 debate between contenders for the Democratic nomination for Arlington County Board, where the two candidates were somewhat on opposite sides of the coin.
Matt de Ferranti, the race’s front-runner, suggested that Arlington officials were right last year in saying “thanks, but no thanks,” to participating in a study of the idea.
“I have not looked at the analysis . . . but I can say I would be fairly wary of moving forward,” de Ferranti said. “It doesn’t sound deeply practical.”
Chanda Choun, who will face off against de Ferranti in the June 12 primary, also was dubious but seemed to have a more open mind – or at least one that didn’t want to alienate any pro-gondola voters in the crowd.
“We need to keep all options on the table,” Choun said. “I don’t think there’s any harm to explore this proposal. We won’t commit to it [but] we should definitely not write it off.”
But write it off is effectively what the Arlington County government did in February 2017, publicly backing away from the idea.
“Arlington already has a large number of transportation projects . . . that will require substantial resources and attention over the next several years,” then-County Board Chairman Jay Fisette said in a letter to the group that had proposed the Rosslyn-to-Georgetown gondola.
In 2016, the county government had provided a small stipend of $35,000 to support a gondola study, but Fisette in 2017 said it would be the last cash tossed at the project.
“Given our identified and pressing transportation needs, along with some ongoing concerns about the long-term value of the gondola, the board is not in favor of any further funding,” he said.
The decision didn’t necessarily end the prospect of a gondola system; District of Columbia and business-improvement districts on both sides of the Potomac are still interested.
The matter was brought up in a question-and-answer portion of the May 2 debate, sponsored by the Arlington County Democratic Committee. The eventual Democratic nominee will face off in November against independent County Board member John Vihstadt.
(Vihstadt that night was attending the Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s Best Business Awards and the induction of Scott McGeary of Washington Gas into the Arlington Business Hall of Fame.)
Arlington Democrats may have reason to fear the political ramifications of the gondola proposal’s rearing its head during the fall campaign. It was in 2014 that the party’s County Board nominee was walloped – not once but twice – by Vihstadt, in large part due to voter disgust over high-ticket capital projects.
Vihstadt’s election triggered collapse of the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar project, when two County Board Democrats (Fisette and Mary Hynes) withdrew their support in November 2014.
The gondola’s proposed cost was less than that of the streetcar – perhaps $90 million to build and an annual operating subsidy of several million dollars – but the proposal still has been lampooned by critics as another vanity project with limited bang for the buck.
In 2016, the promoter of a separate gondola concept, this one using individual pods to traverse the right-of-way above Columbia Pike and other parts of South Arlington, made a pitch but was unable to get community or government support, and was not heard from again.