Gondolas, or aerial trams, have gained favor as a transportation mode in many cities, usually as a way to soar over difficult terrain. The gondola plan put forth by developers to connect South Station to the marine industrial park in South Boston certainly meets that criterion: There are few areas on earth more impassable than the waterfront during commuting hours.
In a region with a strained, debt-heavy, and antiquated public transportation system, the gondola plan proposed by Millennium Partners deserves serious attention, especially if it won’t create an additional financial burden on the MBTA. At the same time, the developers owe the public some answers about the project.
The Millennium Partners’ gondola plan should be categorized as enlightened corporate self-interest: spending considerable money to add to the value of its waterfront holdings. Millennium would spend $100 million to erect cables over Summer Street by building 13 towers over a one-mile route with three stations: South Station, the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and the marine industrial park. It would carry 70 cable cars with capacity for 10 passengers each, running every 8.5 seconds. The trip from South Station to the marine industrial park would take roughly 7 minutes.
But the gondola project also shines a spotlight on the shortcomings of regional transportation and the lack of planning that has made the waterfront one of the region’s worst congestion zones. The Silver Line can’t handle the demand. With the T stuck in a rut, many businesses and institutions are devising their own transportation work-arounds.
The cable cars could transport up to 4,000 passengers per hour, or the equivalent of 50 buses, according to the company. “Even it that’s half true, it could make a difference in an area that’s been growing rapidly,” said Charlie Chieppo, a public policy expert who’s written extensively on the T and other transportation issues.
The question remains whether Millennium Partners ultimately will stick taxpayers with a bill, in perpetuity, for maintaining the system, and whether that cost is worth the benefit. How do those costs and benefits compare to some of the other competing options, such as increasing the use of ferry transportation along the waterfront, building more dedicated bus lanes, or expanding the number of cars in the Silver Line?
Naturally, there are plenty of gondola skeptics out there. They’re an ugly imposition. We should be focusing on managing traffic rather than flying over it. And others contend the project is not integrated enough with other public transportation options. On this last matter, the skeptics have a valid point. If the gondolas are going to be built, why not ensure that connectivity to the MBTA is maximized? The city does not need more detached transit projects of the North Station-South Station type.
Boston desperately needs answers to its congestion. The gondola plan acknowledges the frustrating reality that as the city continues to grow, its transportation system isn’t keeping up.