Could an urban gondola solve the Montlake Mess?

Image: Sound Transit + Flickr: Selbe B

Image: Sound Transit + Flickr: Selbe B

Light rail in the far corner of campus — the 520 flyer stop a long walk from nowhere — lumbering buses merging left, blocking traffic — bus stops located far from UW Station. If transit is going to be a solution for the Montlake Mess, this tangled knot of bad connections will have to be untied. How to better move buses through Montlake? Don’t. Use an urban gondola instead.

A gondola could easily connect the 520 flyer stop on the future Montlake Lid to light rail at UW Station with door-to-door service. Imagine stepping off a 520 bus at Montlake, stepping onto a gondola car, riding it for two minutes over the Montlake Cut and arriving on the upper level of UW Station. An escalator/elevator ride down takes you to light rail below, or walk straight across the pedestrian bridge toward central campus.

Gondola lifts are proven people movers. They safely and comfortably travel over mountainous ski terrain the world over — and they’re increasingly being used in urban environments. London has one over the Thames. Medellin, Colombia has one. Portland has a cable car. St. Louis, Austin, and Chicago have considered them. Earlier this year, one was even proposed for South Lake Union.

But this isn’t just fantasy — it makes sense for Montlake. UW Station is about 1800 feet due north of the 520 flyer stop. That’s enough distance to discourage bus riders from walking — but it’s a modest distance for a gondola. A gondola’s cable system could easily sail over the clearance needed for tall ships in the Montlake Cut and it would be a lot less intrusive than a second bascule bridge. It’s the easiest way to move lots of people over difficult terrain.

How do gondolas compare as transit? Crystal Mountain ski area recently built a 1.3 mile gondola for around $6.5 million that carries up to 450 people per hour (900 with more cars added). The 1.3 mile South Lake Union streetcar cost $56 million and now carries about 2,500 people per day. Comparing capacity and ridership are apples and oranges, but the two systems are in the same ballpark — with the gondola costing a fraction of the price.

So rather than run routes over the Montlake bridge, buses could drop riders at a transit hub on the Montlake Lid, right in front of a gondola station with cars arriving every 30 seconds. Each car can carry a dozen or more people, moving an entire bus load to UW Station in a matter of minutes. What’s the actual transit ridership through Montlake? A recent Nelson/Nygaard study found 11,000 transit passengers cross the Montlake Bridge each day on some 600 buses. Thousands of those riders could instead transfer between UW and 520 along a continuously moving gondola — removing hundreds of left-merging buses from an already congested bottleneck.

Nothing like a little bad Photoshop to stir the imagination...

Nothing like a little bad Photoshop to stir the imagination…

It’s not hard to see how a simple gondola line solves Montlake’s problem of topography. A huge challenge for running light rail on the new 520 Bridge is how to connect it to UW Station — through an expensive tunnel (likely not feasible with little room for a second construction pit near Husky Stadium) or with a second bridge over the Montlake Cut? A gondola would effectively connect UW Station to a potential light rail stop on the lid south of the cut — and for a fraction of the cost of a bridge, tunnel, streetcar or whatever.

Fantasy or common sense? Extend the gondola 2000 feet north of UW Station to the E-1 parking lot and a severely underused University resource becomes a revenue-generating park-and-ride lot. A gondola station near the pedestrian bridge over Montlake Blvd NE would be a three minute walk from the HUB. A mile north of UW Station is University Village, a rapidly growing commercial and residential area. Why not just widen Montlake Blvd and run buses in HOV lanes? You could, but would they run every 30-seconds? A U-Village-to-520 gondola ride could travel 1.3 miles in 6.5 minutes with cars moving just 12 mph. U-Village to light rail in 4.5 minutes.

Connecting U-Village, UW Station and the 520 flyer stop — and possible future 520 light rail — with continuously moving transit seems worthy of study. If Crystal Mountain can build a 1.3 mile gondola line for $6.5 million, then Seattle ought to be able to do it for… $25 million? That would be roughly $75 million less than a second bascule bridge.

But the best reason for a gondola over the Cut? The view would be f*cking fantastic.

11 thoughts on “Could an urban gondola solve the Montlake Mess?

  1. Sorry, but the urban gondola isn’t a solution with the current 520 bridge design proposal, which eliminates the current 520 flyer stop. If WS-DOT would revise the design to include a Montlake flyer stop on the HOV lane that continues toward I-5, without needing surface traffic intersections at 24th Ave E, and at Montlake Blvd, then a gondola might be a good solution. And there’s no reason it would need to termintate at the US Husky Link station. That could be an intermediate stop, and it could continue into the heart of the US campus.

    But the current lid-top transit stop neither allows the buses to smoothly continue toward I-5, nor does it give them anywhere to turn around or layover. As designed right now the lid-top stop sends them onward to the U-District.

    The current design sells short the Montlake neighborhood. A stop on the HOV mainline, like what is provided at present, would be much more valuable for Montlake residents, because it would provide access to all buses at all times, including ones going to Redmond, Bellevue, Totem Lake, Kirkland and also Northgate, as well as easy connections for the 43 & 48 if you live beyond walking distance. Instead of the great service at Montlake today, only buses that are coming from the U-District, and are stuck in Montlake Bridge congestion, will serve the lid-top stop. Maybe off-peak some of the downtown buses will serve the stop, but they’ll be dealing with multiple traffic lights, which will disourage Metro and Sound Transit from serving the stop.

  2. I am familiar with how the Montlake lid will operate for transit, and it is quite likely inferior to how it operates today for many Montlake-area residents as well as folks headed to the U-District. Some of the statements in the WS-DOT webpage are pretty brazen. The Link-bus interface at the UW/Husky station is pretty awful as well.

    “Better operations in Montlake with transit/HOV lanes on
    Montlake Boulevard, local and regional bus stops on a new Montlake lid, and opportunities for transit signal priority”

    Let’s dissect this. Transit/HOV lanes on Montlake Blvd are incomplete, and the require buses crossing from the right to the center and vice versa.

    The current southbound 43/48 stop on the freeway bridge will be closed and the new stop is in front of the Hop-In grocery. The new Montlake Blvd is 8 or 9 lanes which pedestrians will have to cross.

    When a government agency says “opportunities for transit signal priority” that sounds kind of like an unfunded mandate. It’s potentially possible but we aren’t planning on doing it.

    “Through discussions with local communities, we minimized the size of the new SR 520 highway by relocating the Montlake Freeway Transit Station to the top of the new Montlake lid. ”

    The new highway is wider than the existing highway. But they’ve taken away both of the bus stops for buses heading to/from I-5 – and I guess dedicated the additional space for SOVs. The Montlake Freeway station hasn’t been relocated to the Montlake lid – The stops on the lid were designed only for the buses heading to/from the U-District. Truth would be to say we minimized transit on the new SR-520 highway by eliminating the Montlake Freeway station and providing a limited replacement on the lid.

    They have also eliminated the Arboretum ramps. All westbound traffic existing 520 which is headed southbound will cross the HOV ramps at a signalized intersection at 24th Ave E.

    “During peak hours, buses will not stop at the Montlake lid,
    providing more direct service. During off-peak hours, transit agencies could operate buses on top of the Montlake lid, providing service similar to today. ”

    The current Montlake stop requires no traffic lights and takes maybe 30-60 seconds. It provide Montlakers with buses that are useful too. The service to/from downtown will be gone, as will the all-day Kirkland and Redmond service. Transit agencies “could” operate buses on top – going through 2-3 traffic lights and quite a bit of congestion. No assurance that they will, however. If it has 5 mins to the run time in each direction, that is a material cost to the agencies.

    The improvements for transit on the bridge itself and on the Eastside are real. The design in Montlake is poor and will be less functional and provide less service than the existing infrastructure.

  3. If one were to combine a gondola proposal with retaining the Montlake flyer station. that creates some interesting possibilities that may be a real improvement over what we have today.

    I don’t have drawing tools, and I have no idea if this would be acceptable to the Montlake community, but here is what I envision. The center HOV lanes continue to have an exit, but instead of running on the lid, the HOV lane continues elevated across (over) Montlake Blvd with a station near the current lid station. That station could connect directly to the gondola terminal. It could also include a pedestrian overcrossing of Montlake Blvd allowing pedestrian access from either the east or west sides.

    It could feature a T-intersection that allows buses headed towards the U-District direct access to the Montlake Blvd HOV lanes without crossing Montlake traffic.

    An even more elaborate version could have the lanes/platforms stacked in a way that doesn’t require an intersection, but I don’t think that’s necessary for the traffic volumes. The gondola entry level and the bus platforms could all be on the same level.

    Non-transit traffic would not use the elevated structure.

    I’m not artistic enough to try to draw this.

  4. If you’re going to continue to gondola up to U Village, and even on to Children’s as one poster suggests, how about the other way, too? Either up to the top of the hill around Montlake Elementary, or towards downtown Montlake somewhere, like say at 24th and Lynn? Or perhaps include it as part of the new construction at 24th and Boston?

    • Or to Madison Valley or Madison Park; those areas don’t have any transit connection to UW or the east side, and people would also ride just for the view.

  5. Let’s do it! That stretch is an absolute transit desert. Try catching a bus to take you on the east side of UW campus between the topside of the Flyer station and U Village. Sure the traffic is bad, which is probably why Metro doesn’t any stops along it. All the more reason to build the gondola. Hell, regardless of the 520 lid situation, build it now and start connecting the current Flyer users to the UW’s IMA facility.

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