Priority for DC: Gondolas, Ferries, or Flood Protection?

By Gordon Binder 

A November 6th Washington Post article by Luz Lazo, “Are ferry, gondola, high-speed rail ideas for D.C. region realistic or fantasy?” floated the notion of new transit options – ferry service along the Potomac, a gondola crossing the River, rapid rail for the region.  At first blush, a couple of these ideas conjure up a romantic spirit, something other cities have done to showcase their riverfronts and appeal to tourists.

2006 flooding along the National Mall (Courtesy of GSA)
2006 flooding along the National Mall (Courtesy of GSA)

On second thought, however, especially after reading some of the comments posted to the article, I’m wondering whether indeed these proposals have real salience.  Anyone following the plight of Metro DC’s Safe Track and the service cuts should appreciate that as appealing as rapid rail may be, it’ll be very expensive to build and maintain.  Perhaps worth it if ridership were to grow.

As for the gondola, speculation is that it would be of more interest to tourists than commuters, and it may be popular only during the peak months for visitors.  The ferry sounds promising but also has its share of concerns:  how, for example, would commuters let off at a riverfront port make their way to jobs or other destinations in the city absent bus or other means?

But mostly my second thoughts turned to whether investments like this really make sense when, as noted, the main public transit system Metro is in such a state.

Meanwhile, as discussed in previous postings  the National Mall, from whose perspective I write, has $4 billion worth of backlogs for maintenance and repairs.  Among the concerns are flooding, parking, amenities, and more.

The National Mall Coalition has developed a proposal for underground parking on the Mall that would serve as well as a cistern for flooding  a real threat.  Though we have prepared plans and analyses, the project needs a feasibility study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  That study requires a local partner, a city agency, for instance, albeit no funds would be needed from that partner.  Still, we’ve sensed a certain recalcitrance on the part of local agencies and it’s not clear why.

Does anyone think the gondola or ferry service should be more a priority than preparing for floods on the Mall?  Can we look at all these ideas with a fresh perspective of what’s important to help make the Mall resilient?

• Gordon Binder is a Senior Fellow at World Wildlife Fund.

The 3rd Century Mall Plan


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