A Tale of Two Modes

The Project Connect team has received feedback requesting that we’d add gondolas or heavy rail to our high-capacity transit system mix. Let’s explore the pros and cons of the two transit modes, and discuss why we aren’t currently considering them for Project Connect.

First, gondolas:

A recent proposal calls for building the largest and longest gondola service in the world right here in Austin. The pitch is for an eight-mile gondola line that would feature 19 stops and cost an estimated $290 million to $550 million. This is an interesting idea since gondolas are typically used for short one- to two-mile trips, or in very difficult terrain where other transit modes struggle to provide service, like with steep inclines or over water crossings.

Gondolas provide great views and don’t jostle for space with other traffic, since they operate above even elevated rail. Though the idea certainly jibes with the “Keep Austin Weird” vibe, gondolas don’t carry many people per car and typically move only as fast as your average bicycle.

Portland Aerial Tram
The Portland Aerial Tram is a gondola project funded in part by Oregon Health & Science University. Photo credit: OHSU Library, Cyril “Kent” Anderson

But here’s the real deal breaker for many Central Texans: Gondolas don’t feature air conditioning. Can you imagine being enclosed in a small metal car with a handful of other people, high above the city on a sunny (read: HOT!) day traveling at the speed of a bike?

Because securing the right-of-way would be tough and the large stations would  command a large footprint, gondolas aren’t considered a realistic option to serve as a primary part of a regional network along major corridors. They also would have major impacts on other city transportation projects.

And since the Federal Transit Administration has never funded a gondola project, the ones that do exist have been funded by private developers. A recent study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute decided that gondola service paid for solely by Capital Metro is not viable.

Due to all of these factors, we’re not considering gondolas, a mode that doesn’t even meet the definition of high-capacity transit, for investment as part of Project Connect.

Now, heavy rail:

Heavy rail systems are fast, frequent and reliable since the trains operate in their own space, separated from other transportation modes.

Chicago_'L'_-_Flickr_-_ReneS_(5)
Recognizable examples of heavy rail systems in the United States include the New York City Subway and the Chicago “L” (pictured). Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

To separate heavy rail from other traffic, it must operate above and/or below street level, limiting where it’s viable. Environmental concerns or natural elements (like large areas of stony ground or expansive waterways) can make constructing an underground heavy rail line cost prohibitive, if not physically impossible.

You can probably guess why it’s difficult to install heavy rail systems above ground. One issue is right-of-way. It’s difficult to install track, platforms and supports when property is already owned by someone else, and occupied by homes, businesses and roads.

Many heavy rail systems were built more than 100 years ago, when land was easier to acquire and environmental and safety standards were vastly different. Those necessary — and important! — differences made excavation and building costs much less expensive than today. Cities have since grown up and expanded around these early-developed heavy rail systems.

Heavy rail also requires access to massive amounts of uninterrupted electrical power. This is a major safety concern, as the notorious “third rail,” powered by electricity, prohibits people from crossing tracks to gain access to trains.

These factors combine to place heavy rail among the most expensive modes to build and operate in the U.S.

Still, heavy rail systems can move a lot of people and enjoy higher ridership than most other forms of transit. These systems are built in cities with some of the largest populations in the country. Though Austin and the entire Central Texas region are experiencing record growth, there are still far fewer people living here than other major U.S. cities. Chicago and New York City, for instance, have five to ten times more people than Austin.

“But Austin is busting at the seams!?!”

We hear ya! The bottom line is that a city must have a population large enough (read: HUGE!) to help offset the expense of building and operating heavy rail. Unfortunately, Austin’s population must grow even greater for the return on this investment to make sense.

For all these reasons, Capital Metro is not studying heavy rail as a mode option for Project Connect.

Project Connect is working hard to bring real transit solutions to Central Texas. To find out more about what we’re doing to develop a connected high-capacity transit system for Central Texas, see ProjectConnect.com.

7 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Modes

  1. talikwa

    I support abandoning any further consideration of gondolas. This is an impractical and inefficient transit mode. For the reasons you described, heavy rail is also inappropriate. What we need is light rail, with a route on the highest-density corridor in the city. If Dallas can do light rail, so can we!

  2. Help, I'm trapped inside this computer!

    Now that we have gondolas and heavy rail out of the way, let’s get down to some serious discussion… of light rail in particular! It’s long past time for Austin to build a network of light rail lines that serve the existing population (as opposed to the proposed Green Line which is good for real estate speculators but not current residents). We should build the first line where the most people are, which offers the greatest potential ridership. Guadalupe St and Lamar Blvd. are the obvious routes!

  3. Pingback: Today’s Headlines – Streetsblog Texas

  4. Fred Reutzel

    Would rather see more HOV and priority lanes for buses as well as the future enhancements of the 2025 plan. Looking forward to it’s start.

  5. Robin

    If your rail cars frequently get flooded out—safely and effectively maintaining cars in air are going to be a nightmare. Cities which do have this system currently successfully up and running also have successful transit infrastructure to properly maintain it.

  6. Robin

    It is well past time for us to quit goofing off. We need to ‘be like Dallas’ and look at what they have done re transit operations/standards. No more excuses.

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