Handel Architects via City of Boston
The proposed gondola system on the South Boston Waterfront would include a hulking terminal across Summer Street near South Station, 13 large towers spanning the one-mile route to the marine industrial park, and about 70 cable cars that can fit 10 passengers each, running every 9 seconds.
These are some of the details — and images — included in a presentation a development team gave to city officials in January. It’s one of the more novel solutions proposed for Boston’s infamous traffic to come along in years. The presentation included striking renderings of three stations on the route.
They show a system that fluctuates in height as it crosses the neighborhood — higher than five-story buildings in some areas, while elsewhere dipping down closer to street level to be out of the line of hotel rooms that are planned along the route.
Millennium Partners, the big-time development company behind several major downtown towers, and its affiliate Cargo Ventures are proposing to build a $100 million gondola line as a transit option in the booming and increasingly congested Seaport District. It would help connect South Station to the 12-acre site in the marine industrial park where Cargo Ventures plans to build a large complex.
Millennium and Cargo did not respond to a request for comment. The presentation, labeled Boston Cableway Study, is credited to Millennium, Handel Architects, and the engineering firm VHB, and includes a caution that “all figures and illustrations are approximate.”
Still, here’s a look at what they proposed to City Hall:
A gondola station stretching over Summer Street, between South Station and the Federal Reserve Building
A station at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center
Another terminal on the eastern edge of the Seaport District, at the marine industrial park
A dip in height as the cable cars pass the planned Omni Hotel — and the rooms with a view
Cars passing over Fort Point Channel and along Summer Street during the 7.3-minute trip
The developers acknowledge a number of challenges, especially for installing the tall poles along the gondola route. Some of the towers could affect utilities, traffic signals, and a bus stop, while the gondola station across Summer Street at South Station could affect parking spaces for people with disabilities.
The idea is also running into resistance from transit advocates, who would prefer the city and state governments implement bus-only lanes on Summer Street or increase the frequency of Silver Line buses that run through the Seaport. They worry that construction of the gondola could interfere with future bus lanes.
“Rather than going over congestion, we should be trying to better manage it,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.
City Hall may share some of that skepticism. Chris Osgood, chief of streets for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, asked VHB to also study the benefits of bus lanes on the same corridor.
VHB responded with a memo saying bus lanes and increased frequencies on the MBTA’s 7 and 4 routes could increase capacity by between 650 and 900 passengers an hour, compared to 4,000 riders an hour on the gondola. The company said buses may not be able to turn around at South Station if routes end there.
Walsh told WCVB-TV on Wednesday that “everything is on the table.” “If there’s an opportunity to get buses and cars off the street and get people in the air, it might free up space on the street,” he said.
While gondolas have long since graduated from ski slopes into an almost mainstream option for urban transit, they have mostly been used to deal with difficult terrain — such as over the East River in New York City or up a steep hill in Portland, Ore.
But planners are increasingly exploring them as a tactic to bypass traffic in congested cities, said Rick Spear, the America president for gondola company Leitner-Poma.
“That’s the focus of the people who are coming to me from cities. They’re looking for inexpensive, rapid, and sensible ways to combat this congestion,” said Spear, who added that his company is working with Millennium and Cargo on the project.
Cities like Baton Rouge, La., and Austin, Texas, have also explored gondolas as traffic solutions in recent years. But Austin officials last year said gondolas were better served for “ ‘niche’ applications and not as a primary means of moving people.”
Albany, N.Y., is also considering a gondola system, but for the more traditional purpose of bringing travelers across the Hudson River from the Amtrak station in Rensselaer to Albany’s downtown.
Spear said the most similar example to Boston’s proposed system opened in 2016 near Mexico City; that system carries commuters from outer neighborhoods above congested streets as they make their way toward the city.
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