West Seattle group launches campaign for gondolas as alternative to light rail

Dec 21, 2020, 9:19 AM
high-speed gondolas, Harley Lever...
High-speed gondolas are used in cities around the country and have been pitched as an option in Seattle before. (AP)

A local group is ramping up a push for an alternative to light rail, proposing a network of aerial gondolas that would connect West Seattle to downtown.

Gondolas wouldn’t solve transportation problem, but they’d be neat

The group is calling its proposal the West Seattle SkyLink, and recently launched a website and social media presence as part of its advocacy.

Activists claim that compared to Sound Transit’s light rail roadmap, aerial gondolas would be cheaper, finish construction faster, and carry the same projected daily ridership. In order to fully service West Seattle, it would entail 100 cabins circling a route pulled by wire, “each with about 10 seats, carrying 4,500 people per hour.”

“Every 20 seconds a cabin arrives, gets off the main wire so that it can slow down for people to exit and board before the cabin gets on the wire again,” the group’s website describes.

Similar services already exist in London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Medellin.

In terms of how long it might take to finish, advocates estimate that gondolas connecting West Seattle could be up and running by 2023 or 2024. Sound Transit is currently targeting a 2031 completion for its West Seattle light rail extension, with delays brought on by revenue shortfalls from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the West Seattle Bridge out of commission while it awaits repairs, the pro-gondola group believes that its proposal could offer a feasible alternative way in and out of the neighborhood, and head off any future potential problems the bridge might encounter.

“As West Seattle has grown, traffic congestion has increased,” it says on its website. “The failure of the West Seattle bridge has only intensified the problem. … Rather than wait a decade or more for light rail, we are asking Sound Transit to consider an urban gondola connection called SkyLink which can carry the same number of riders and be built in two years with far less disruption and displacement.”

Seattle’s light rail expansions likely won’t reduce road congestion

There are some relative disadvantages to aerial gondolas, though. As The Urbanist points out, their maximum rider capacity tops out around 55,000 passengers a day, compared to 89,000 for Link light rail (despite predicted ridership demand sitting between 32,000-37,000 for both).

Gondolas also come with fewer stops along any single route and move slower than light rail. That could present potential safety concerns, with passengers stuck in a tighter space together with more time between stops.

This also isn’t the first time a plan like this has come up as a proposed alternative mode of transportation in the Puget Sound region. A Kirkland city councilmember unsuccessfully pitched the idea to connect downtown to the Cross Kirkland Corridor with gondolas in February of 2014. The concept was also proposed by the developers behind the Seattle Great Wheel in that same year. Both times, the plan failed to get off the ground.

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West Seattle group launches campaign for gondolas as alternative to light rail