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About that idea to connect the train station with downtown Albany via a gondola lift...

Capital District Gondola ESP rendering

Maybe you remember a while back the idea popped up of constructing a gondola lift to ferry people between downtown Albany and the train station over in Rensselaer.

Well, the engineering firm that floated the possibility -- McLaren Engineering Group -- released a feasibility study Wednesday that concludes the project is workable, and "retains the potential of being a transformational project that will create a spark of increased mobility, tourism, and economic development in two areas of the cities of Albany and Rensselaer that are currently underdeveloped."

Here's a quick overview and a few thoughts...

Outline of the plan

Here's a general outline of the possible plan:

+ A gondola lift stretching from the Albany-Rensselaer train station to downtown Albany roughly along the path of the Dunn Memorial Bridge and the South Mall Expressway.

+ The first phase would run the gondola line from the train station to a spot on South Pearl Street near the Times Union Center.

+ Phase two would extend the line to the Empire State Plaza.

+ Estimated travel time between the train station and South Pearl Street: 4.27 minutes. Estimated travel time between the train station and the Empire State Plaza: 6.58 minutes.

+ The system would initially to be able to handle 1,200 passengers per hour. Cabins could be added to increase capacity.

+ Depending on the final design, phase one is projected to cost roughly $16.6 million-$19.5 million. Phase two would tack on an additional $9-$10 million.

+ Annual operating costs for phase one would be $1.6 million. For phase one and phase two, $2.4 million.

+ The report projects ridership "well in the hundreds of thousands each year." And it asserts construction and operating costs can be offset by passenger and advertising revenue.

+ The report lays out a range of possible funding mechanisms, from fully-private backing to public backing, to a mix of the two.

+ If funding is lined up by the summer of 2017, construction could start in 2018, the gondola could be finished by the end of 2019.


A handful of renderings from the report about how the project might look are above in large format -- click or scroll all the way up.

A few thoughts

Potential passengers
The Albany-Rensselaer train station is the nation's ninth-busiest Amtrak station -- it had more than 780,000 passengers either boarding or disembarking at the station in fiscal year 2014. That's roughly 2,100 passengers per day over the course of a year.

How many of those people are either headed to or coming from downtown Albany? Probably quite a few. But enough for there to be "hundreds of thousands" of gondola passengers each year?

When you're a hammer...
As mentioned, McLaren Engineering Group backed this study. And it pulled in collaborators that include Doppelmayr, "the world's leading manufacturer of ropeway technologies for gondolas," and a company called Urban Gondola Systems LLC. Everyone involved in this process could very well be making a good-faith effort to be clear-eyed about the potential and costs. But getting a feasibility study from a group with nothing to gain is a good idea.

It might sound ridiculous, but...
We gotta admit: Our first thought when hearing about this idea was something along the lines of, "Uh... OK." And we're still skeptical. (You know, how about a really nice dedicated bus instead?)

But the current situation is not ideal. The historical decision to site the train station over in Rensselaer was a bad idea (even if there some context at the time for doing so), separating the rail destination from the urban center. It introduces another layer of complication for making transportation connections, one made even worse by this area's often disappointing taxi service.

So maybe there's something here to think about. And if not this, maybe there's some other alternative idea to consider.

It's more of a Shelbyville idea...

That said, the whole thing still reminds us of "Marge vs. the Monorail."


Earlier on AOA: New York State could be closer to allowing Uber and Lyft to operate here. Maybe. Sort of. (From this past spring -- the legislation opening the way for taxi app companies has still not made it through the state legislature.)


Thought 1: Wacky.

Thought 2: AWESOME!!!!

Did we need a theater shaped like an egg? No we did not.
Wacky? Yes it is!

It is shiny. I want it.

I'd like it. I hate having to get in a car and drive after I've been sitting in a train for 2 hours.

The estimates seem suprisingly affordable too.

of course, passengers can just take an Uber to where they need to go... oh, wait...

The idea seems crazy at first (thanks for linking to the Monorail video so it doesn't have to be the subject of every single comment), but it's not a bad idea if the financials are right (meaning, if they think they can sustain the ongoing operating/maintenance costs).

That being said, I don't understand the need for phase two at all. Once the convention center is finished, the walkway between the plaza and the TU center will be enclosed, climate controlled, and (I assume) the escalators will be in operation. Basically the route between the TU and the Plaza will be like walking between terminals at an airport. Why would there need to be a phase two to cover that span?

I still want a commuter rollercoaster -- so much more fun!

Given that I've had out of town people take it upon themselves to walk across the Dunn to get out of taking a cab to Albany, this is a good plan.

I love it. Though it may be more popular with tourists that train commuters. I rode the Roosevelt Island Tram last year.


Whenever I read something like this, I hear this refrain in the background:

"What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(more leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We'll be clean when their work is done
We'll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young"

-- Donald Fagen

It's nice that some folks have "out-of-the-box" thinking, but this just seems bizarre. And I share your skepticism regarding the annual volume of gondola passengers and the organizations involved in the feasibility study.

The other issue is that the plan seems to be contingent on receiving a lot of public funds. I can't see spending all that taxpayer money on something like this.

Did they have a guess at how much a one way ride might cost? And I'd definitely like something waiting for me on the other end - like a food truck, market or bar.

I think as a nation we have all lost our collective minds.....it's not that it wouldn't be cool to ride the fun gondola car, it would be neato, it's the fact that it is even needed in the first place....can our planning of cities be any worse????????

An elaborate workaround because Uber can't get passed upstate.

Larry, this is a local project. Uber requires a change in state law.

Great idea! I would use it if the price isn't outrageous. I attempted to make a train at midday this past Saturday, and there was not a single parking spot at the lots at the train station. What the woman staffing the gate said, was, "This is the holidays." Um, November 12 is not "the holidays"! I imagine it gets even worse (is there something worse than no parking spots?) between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Of course, if one could simply walk directly from downtown, it wouldn't be far at all. But we have those wacky loop de loops here to get across the river.

I feel like this is one of those things that the area thinks is cool at first then fizzles out and sits mostly unused.

Sort of like the funiculars in Pittsburgh; not necessary, but charming. As Tess said, we don't need the egg either but it's become symbolic (in a good way).

I'm with Paul, why extend it all the way to the ESP when there will be a stop essentially at the convention center. There's an obvious benefit here to the convention center that should help secure some funding, if the cards are played right (maybe its already too late).

Putting on my red hat for a second, beyond the initial construction this creates a handful of well-paying jobs.

Yeah, it sounds silly. But metro areas around the country are in tight spots. We need to convince people to come here, and that requires more creative thinking than just getting Uber. The convention center debacle has been a bit ridiculous but now that we're getting it, it needs to be leveraged. Hudson Valley tourism is a real thing and the isolation of the Rensselaer station hampers out ability to capitalize on it. Further ahead, we're moving toward a driverless future which will radically change our commuting patterns and road infrastructure; projects like this are poised to at least fill in the gaps that will spring up, and at best help steer that change in a way that maximally benefits residents and pedestrians.

The convention center is going to cost, what, $200m+? Even as a gamble, this project at $20m seems like it's worth a shot.

If this does go forward, put bike racks on the gondola. Most ski resorts have done this to accommodate summer MTB riding, so it can be done.

Jeff Williamson, I agree. And that would be a costly mistake.

If it's such a great idea that company should build it without state or federal funds. Of course we know that will never happen.

I've looked at urban gondolas quite a bit since this came up. I think it's a good idea. It seems weird and wacky because gondolas aren't something that get talked about a lot, so its naturally startling. But it's a very mature technology (that is famously successful in NYC), a LOT cheaper than other infrastructure options, and at the end of the day, looks to the long-term.

The trends that are putting pressure on that rail station and the link between the station and downtown Albany are steadily increasing.

My one caveat (having not seen the numbers in the study): did they do a reliable survey of current demand to base their revenue projections on?

Next up: Ringling Brothers releases a feasibility study detailing a plan that involves human canons and safety nets.

Wouldn't it be cheaper to just sort out the taxi system?

"Ridership is expected to be in the hundreds of thousands annually."

I'm curious as to where the authors of this study came up with their initial estimate of ridership. I can't find where in the study they explain. But the study does go on to say:

"The next steps will focus on securing funding sources, optimizing public/private partnerships; and developing a more refined ridership and economic impact analysis."

So they want "public/private" funding even before they have a viable business plan?

This is certainly a novel idea, but how does it benefit the people that need the most help in our area? Take a drive through the South End and smell the rotting sewage systems. Look at the trash that goes uncollected. The buildings that are occupied by squatters. From there, head back up town and explore Arbor Hill. You'll see dozens of vandalized buildings. You'll see people collecting bottles and cans to eat. There is a growing opiate problem in our area. Our inner-city schools are crumbling before our eyes.

With all of this, our leaders want to push for a gondola at a cost of nearly $20 million? Imagine the good even a portion of that money would do if it were actually invested in the people and the infrastructure of our city?

Mayor Sheehan - respectfully, why do we continue to build and invest in the things that have no impact on the lives of those that need our leaders the most? How does this help the family that isn't sure where their next meal will come from? How does this keep the heat on during the winter?

Since you can not take a bus to and from the train station and the only other public transportation options for the 9th busiest train station in the country is to be herded into vans to be shuttled around the capital district with a group of strangers waiting for your turn to be dropped off, I think the idea of a gondola is brilliant. I recently rode one in Portland that was used by commuters and tourist alike.

I love the constant comments (here and elsewhere) along the lines of: "Why not fix this/that/the other thing first??!?!" as if this is an either/or proposition. If we don't do this, the sewer system still won't be replaced, potholes won't disappear from the northeast, poor people won't stop being poor before sending their kids to school, all the vacant buildings won't suddenly have been rehabbed and we won't get a light rail line. Not spending $20 million on this isn't going to free up billions for all the rest.

That's not to say the gondola is the most conventional or solid idea, though I like it quite a bit and hope the numbers work out. But this mentality of "never do anything until you can do absolutely everything" is harming us much more than any other problem that's been mentioned here.

JayK -

I appreciate and respect your take on this. I say that sincerely, as these discussions aren't always as civil as they tend to be on AOA. Thank you for that.

I'm not suggesting it's an either/or situation. I'm suggesting that this is a matter of priorities on a deeply local level. I just don't see how we can justify such spending when there are other needs, in some cases basic needs, that people need met before we can get to stuff like this. Certainly $20 million won't right all the wrongs that have been caused throughout the generations, but it will start the process in a more robust and meaningful way. Beyond that, it's symbolic for those stuck at the bottom - for a local government to put its own interests aside for the cause of those struggling is powerful, if not life changing, if done correctly.

To me, this is a surprising turn from our Mayor who was a vocal supporter of HRC, alleged champion of the lower and middle classes of America.

If it's such a great idea that company should build it without state or federal funds. Of course we know that will never happen.

I think this could be beneficial beyond train traffic. With the amount of space near the train station, parking garages could be expanded and serve as "park and ride" for everyday commuters into Albany. With the nearby planned development in Rensselaer, the local population may be larger, and this could serve as a way into Albany in the evenings and weekends, without requiring driving or climbing up and over the bridge (or hailing a freekin Uber for that matter).

@Jeff- successful public transportation systems built and/or maintained without any public funding are almost never successful anywhere in the world. There are very few exceptions.

State and federal funds are FOR infrastructure projects like this.

It's not about making it a profitable project for the private sector. It's about net gain for the community as a whole. Making rail transit connect easily to downtown makes economic sense across a whole bunch of metrics.

Thanks, Dan. I return the appreciation, but remain in disagreement.

"Certainly $20 million won't right all the wrongs that have been caused throughout the generations, but it will start the process in a more robust and meaningful way." Honestly, it wouldn't be a fraction of a drop in the bucket. This project also wouldn't detract from that work in any way. This money also wouldn't be returned to other projects or concerns in Albany. This isn't even a publicly funded project as financing hasn't been figured out, but we're already hearing that we can't even think about it before we fix (or start fixing? same difference) every other problem we can possibly think of first. The things you list are important and need to be addressed, as it stands, they have no connection to this whatsoever. I still consider this mentality to be dangerously counterproductive. Let's debate this on its own merits. Then let's continue to do so every time a project like this is proposed.

This is so cool....I could get off the train at night and enter an expanse of empty parking lots and space devoid of life at the train station and then hop on board a gondola to be quickly wisked off to the Empire State plaza to find myself again surrounded by another expanse of concrete empty space also devoid of life......gotta love government planning!

This is about the dumbest idea I've ever heard.

Dan is right, above. There are other far more important priorities if Albany has a spare $20 million lying around.....and we all know it doesn't.

Gondolas work at ski resorts and in NYC because lots of people want to travel short distances there. If this is such a great idea, I agree with Jeff - let the private investors take it on and see how they do.

Finally, no, this is nothing like the funiculars (inclines) in Pittsburgh. The inclines were built over 100 years ago to meet a real public transportation need; the last two are still used that way, and since they were already there, they are also major tourist attractions. You've got it backwards if you think they were built to add color. They were built to deal with Pittsburgh's terrain and only much later, when most of them fell into disuse, they became a landmark.

Sheehan, if this is the best you can do, please find another job.

@Stan - thank you for setting the record straight on Pittsburgh's inclines. I agree with everything you said. But wouldn't it be great if these gondolas could also serve commuters? Perhaps parking could be expanded at the train station and people could catch the gondola to work at the Empire State Plaza. At least it would be a step toward alleviating some parking woes downtown.

All Albany really wants is a night club, uber, and a Chinatown/little Italy.

Instead we keep getting bs no one ever once mentioned that we wanted or needed.

How would gondolas be better than buses for meeting this need?

Trains arrive more-or-less on a schedule and drop off a whole big gaggle of people all at once. Kinda like buses.

They are predictable. Kinda like buses.

When the station is between arrivals, no one is arriving.....gondola space would be empty and wasted. But buses could be scheduled to not be there when there are no trains.

Golly, it's almost like buses are a really good solution here.

Just saying.

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