How we all ended up talking about a gondola between downtown Albany and the train station

Capital District Gondola ESP rendering

Last fall the McLaren Engineering Group floated the idea of building a gondola lift to ferry people between downtown Albany and the train station over in Rensselaer. The initial phase of the project would have a price tag $16.6 million-$19.5 million. (That image is from the feasibility study.)

By Sandy Johnston

The concept of building a gondola or aerial tramway across the Hudson River from the Rensselaer Amtrak station to downtown Albany and the Empire State Plaza has generated a considerable amount of debate in the Capital Region over the last several months.

Readers of my previous commentaries in this space know that I'm suspicious of the need to spend tens of millions on capital-intensive infrastructure projects in the region, preferring to spread the money around to more fundamental improvements such as increased local bus service and CDTA's planned Bus Rapid Transit lines.

The gondola concept, though, presents an opportunity to consider a more basic question: Just why do quirky, perhaps absurd ideas like the gondola keep popping up in regional dialogue about transportation infrastructure?

Albany-Rensselaer train station walk from Albany Google Maps
Well, I suppose it's theoretically possible to walk. / image: Google Maps

The proximal reason for the gondola proposal is the fact that Albany's train station is not located within the city proper, but across the river in Rensselaer.

Albanians are quite familiar with the sordid history of how the train station ended up "over there", as opposed to its former location on Broadway in downtown Albany. We can blame Penn Central, Joe Bruno, or any number of other factors, but the fact remains that the current station in Rensselaer, while poorly sited, is well-built, heavily invested in, and not going anywhere.

A similar situation applies in Troy, where the centrally-sited Union Station was demolished in the 1950s, removing passenger rail service from the city entirely.

Both of these station relocations were, broadly, driven by classic autocentric planning that foresaw (in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way) the downfall of rail as a mode of mass transportation and banished the necessary infrastructure from city centers in favor of highways.

Indeed, the planning processes in which Capital Region and other areas across Upstate and the country are currently engaging are conducted under the massive shadow cast by that era of planning. Another Upstater, Arian Horbovetz, wrote on The Urban Phoenix recently about how the big, wide, fast roads built on the right-of-way of the old Erie Canal in several Upstate cities have become major barriers to mobility for anyone not in a car. This context, where cars and highways achieve primacy without a second thought and other types of transportation are a secondary concern, is naturally geared to produce somewhat out-there ideas like the gondola and Duncan Crary's suggestion for a bus-train connecting the Amtrak station to Troy.

old Troy Union Station postcard
The old train station that once stood at 6th Ave and Broadway in downtown Troy. / image via Boston Public Library postcard collection

Simply put, there is huge inertia behind our legacy investments in autocentric infrastructure; imagining creative (and expensive) solutions that deal tactically with that reality is relatively easy, while a ground-up re-imagining of how a diversified transportation system should work sees major barriers thrown up.

Scattered parts

An illustrative example is the near-total lack of coordination between the various modes of transit within the region. Only two CDTA buses reach the train station, with mediocre frequency and very poor ridership on that end of their routes. CDTA's current downtown Albany hub is located across the street from the Greyhound station -- itself a story of sordid infrastructure -- and while it is technically possible to walk across the Dunn Bridge to the Amtrak station I wouldn't really recommend it, especially if you have luggage.

In theory, Albany's intercity transportation hubs -- the airport, the bus station, and the train station -- serve an enormous area, funneling trips from all across the Capital Region, the Berkshires, the Mohawk Valley, and even the North Country and much of Vermont. But the disparate layout of those hubs means that it's hard for a connecting service from the outlying areas to serve more than one of them -- much less downtown Albany and the Empire State Plaza -- efficiently. To fix that fundamental reality would require sustained planning and investment at a level that seems hard to imagine today.

Concepts like the gondola and the bus-train are, essentially, kludges -- inefficient and less-than-elegant solutions to a difficult problem. They can and should be evaluated independently on their own merits, but they should also be acknowledged as symptoms of a larger problem -- and as (potentially very expensive) short-term ideas that don't solve the fundamental dysfunction of transportation planning afflicted by the mid-20th century's single-minded automobile obsession.

Instead of that kind of comprehensive planning, though -- and I place no blame on anyone in particular for not taking on that kind of massive challenge -- the region is producing a wide variety of ideas that are creative but manage to lack both ambition and a larger strategic vision. Concepts like the gondola and the bus-train are, essentially, kludges -- inefficient and less-than-elegant solutions to a difficult problem. They can and should be evaluated independently on their own merits, but they should also be acknowledged as symptoms of a larger problem -- and as (potentially very expensive) short-term ideas that don't solve the fundamental dysfunction of transportation planning afflicted by the mid-20th century's single-minded automobile obsession.

Lasting effects

I-787 South Mall Expressway from Corning Tower 2017-January
The choice to build 787 and the South Mall Expressway had long lasting effects.

The core lesson of this analysis, then, is that infrastructure choices last. Ideas that are produced today are, through no fault of their own, powerfully shaped by a framework that was created decades ago, and still reflects the values of the time of its creation. While it may be hard to undo aspects of that framework, policymakers today can learn from the way it continues to influence planning processes today.

So let's be careful with the decisions made now -- about the gondola, about how to redevelop the "parking lot district" in downtown Albany and other vacant or underutilized land, about how to create a version of I-787 (another of those poor midcentury choices) that works for the communities along it. And let's not allow someone else's vision from 60 years ago to bog us down. Be ambitious. And ask questions, because the decisions we make now last for a very long time.

A few questions to ask about transportation projects (feel free to add your own!)

Whose interests does it serve?
I've criticized autocentric planning throughout this article, but my hostility is not (only) about cars per se; it's about the fact that planning for one way of getting around -- as it happens, the most expensive and exclusive one -- disproportionately serves the interests of the well-to-do at the expense of the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities, among other groups.

As much as midcentury planners insisted what they did was a science, we now recognize that it was an ideology as much as anything. Planning always is. The key is to make it a good ideology! Contemporary planning can and should be more considerate and inclusive.

Is it evolutionary or revolutionary?
Both of these types of projects have their place, of course. But we're just (if we're lucky) coming out of an age of monolithic planning, and perhaps we need a revolution in places rather than working around the edges to accommodate the status quo.

Is it worth it?
This is perhaps an obvious question, and one that gets asked regularly, but it's not necessarily how politicians or planners think. Federal funding tends to come attached to very clear yes/no metrics. Elected officials, in particular, tend to get attached to a single project beyond any consideration of cost/benefit ratios. Question that.

Is it the best use of the money?
The other way to phrase this would be: "Is it the highest priority?" Obviously, we live in an era of austerity where many, many infrastructural needs are going unmet -- but somehow, planning processes often allow for luxury or vanity projects to slip by. Just look at Andrew Cuomo's fairly useless LaGuardia AirTrain.

When the boring and unsexy -- local bus service, reliable intercity trains, functional sewers -- are suffering, it's not really time to spend on luxury items.

Sandy Johnston is a transportation planner for the Central Transportation Planning Staff of the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. He recently finished his Master's in Regional Planning and a certificate in Urban Policy at UAlbany. He blogs at Itinerant Urbanist and is a vocal presence on Twitter @sandypsj. Before moving to Albany, Sandy had lived in New Jersey, Oregon, Iowa, Connecticut, Chicago, Jerusalem, and New York City. Sandy now lives in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston with his partner Gabriella and their two cats, but misses the brownstone beauty of Albany's Center Square/Hudson Park. You can reach Sandy with comments or complaints through his website.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Thinking about Capital Region light rail
+ Designing for safer Capital Region streets
+ What if tearing down I-787 could actually improve traffic?

Comments

The answer is that it's not a quirky or absurd idea. It's just an unfamiliar one to most people. There are plenty of examples of cable propulsion, in urban and non urban applications, and it totally makes sense for this one at first glance, if you are familiar with the uses and unique properties of gondolas.

That said, the impetus for propelling it to the front of the line, ahead of more boring and less costly options, has an equally boring answer - the erosion of faith in technocracy. Ironically, the same reflex that induces many people to make snide comments about gondolas and government spending.

Great column - should be on the front page of the TU.

The gondola plan is absurd nonsense....yeah, that's redundant. But it's really an awful idea.

The reason we have no good, strategic plans, but plenty of stupid gimmicky ones, is because our local political system has been broken for over 100 years. We had a republican machine until 1920 and we have had a dem machine ever since. Sure, that machine is pretty creaky these days compared to the past, but, it is still controlling things. Sheehan is a new singer performing the same old song.

In an environment of real political competition, who knows what might be possible.

My own two cents:
a) Forget about the gondola, it's a classic boondoggle. Any local politician who supports it should be laughed out of office.
b) Maintenance of 787 isn't free. Repurpose the maintenance money into demolition money. Take it all down; replace it with a boulevard.
c) development of that waterfront property will probably follow organically, but if not, nudge it along. That will grow our tax base and help everyone.
d) City of Albany: get your tax assessor into the nano complex. There's at least $5M of annual tax revenue sitting there untapped.
e) *Demand* (stop asking nicely) that the State pay its fair share of local costs.
f) Get rid of the entire current generation of local politicans ;)

Do all that and we'll have a great place to live. Even the weather is getting better.

Considering that McLaren Engineering floated the idea soon after opening their Albany office, I wonder how much of it is a real proposal, and how much is a publicity ploy for name recognition.

Still, it should be considered on its merits, and how well it compares to restoring the Livingston Avenue bridge walkway and improving and widening the walkway on the Dunn. The gondola and Livingston options would be better for people unwilling or unable to climb the grade on the Dunn.

Oh man, this guy again. The one who suggested we ruin one of the best parts of the city by adding a roundabout (seriously) to Delaware, Lark and Madison. Sandy, I thought you were leaving. Please get on with that, and refrain from making our lives more dangerous in the process.

[Disagreement and criticism are fine. But let's please refrain from making such criticism personal.]

Oh fer crying out loud. This would all be a non-issue if we had reliable ride on demand services around here (don't care if it's uber or Lyft or whatever) at zero cost to taxpayers. Such silliness.

When 787 cracked apart a few years ago was the time to demolish the whole thing. An opportunity lost.

Z. - just one traditional point: Hudson is navigable river, so any bridge must be either high enough for boats to pass (Dunn) or drawbridge (so one cannot bet on being at work on time, water traffic has right of way).

The author makes good points about the lack of integration of the transportation hubs---and while he appears critical of the auto-centric set up, he declines to embrace a solution! It appears that no one wants to embrace change or "try something"...shooting down ideas without proposing alternatives seems to be the trend.

The gondola is one small positive step forward---it dovetails nicely with the convention center/TU center and downtown, and is justified by the lack of CDTA service

CDTA service is lousy to the train station. CDTA is still set up for the "factory worker" or state office worker schedule---you cannot use it to get to the train station for the busiest Amtrak runs to NYC ( without counting walking time, Rte 114 and 214 arrive after the first 2 trains)

AND it's difficult/impractical to get from the Train to the airport by CDTA...though airport-train station public transit service is "standard" in many communities...and should be here since ALB is a regional airline

AND you absolutely cannot use the CDTA to get to the airport for the bulk of the flights (Rt 117, 155 and 737 arrive between 6:56 and and 7:02 am---and WITHOUT counting walking time or the TSA lead time, you've missed a large proportion of the flights from ALB---and don't even think about taking CDTA home from the airport...last busses leave at 5:53 pm to 8:30 pm..with the exception of an 11 pm Rt 155 bus)

CDTA access to the Airport or Amtrak lacks park and ride facilities--especially important given the limited scope of service---not many potential passengers are within walking distance of those routes.

There is SO much potential here, SO many resources...and yet the region just plods along. Ugh.

jsc - one fine point:
I don't think train-to-plane transfers are that numerous in Albany. Once you're talking about train to the airport, train to NYC airports becomes a viable alternative. NYC likely to have more options and usually lower price...

Sorry, Greg, but the contributions have gone from good to ugly in no time at all. When a non-local person is decrying cool ideas and proposing utterly destructive ones that he never has to live with, it warrants criticism.

Why didn't they put another train station back in Albany.
It is the capital city, isn't it?
Take back our former station!

mg, that's not an option.

2 weekends back I had to go from The City Beer Hall to Hill Street Cafe. It would be generous to say it's half a mile. A cab cost me $10.

Can we have a Gondola to get over the South Mall arterial? Or maybe just regulated cabs & ride sharing services? The only way on foot from Madison to State is down to Pearl Street & up, or up to Eagle Street & back down, which forces pedestrians down & up a hilly wind tunnel covered in bird shit.

In reality I understand this trip is a minor inconvenience but it's another example of the auto-centric and dated decisions.

@JayK, I dunno what I did to make you mad, but I'm sorry! You've been quite positive about my work in the past and you're generally a thoughtful voice. For the record, this is the first piece I've published on AOA since leaving Albany (I only moved a month ago!). The initial draft was significantly more positive about the gondola concept, but Greg (rightly IMO) suggested I expand the scope to look at the general state of dialogue. If you think this post is really trashing the gondola idea, read it again--I really do have considerable sympathy for where it's coming from and I feel mournful about the whole situation. Also, I'm not remotely in any position to make decisions on any of this!

Oh, and the traffic circle idea was just something I floated on Twitter to get thoughts...the feedback I got was frankly what I was expecting, which is that it's probably too dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. *Something* needs to be done to make that intersection safer for peds and bikes, but I'm not exactly pushing a particular solution anywhere!

Finally, I would respectfully suggest that telling someone who lived in town for 3.5 years and knows the field off as an out-of-towner is precisely the kind of defeatist attitude that leads to bad planning in the first place. Local knowledge and perspective is important; so are comparative lenses. We planners do tend to hire too many consultants who zoom in from on high, but maybe we should be trying to blend ideas and not be defensive?

Sandy, I do apologize for the harshness I started with, but I stand by the gist. A few things: This piece did not come off to me as supportive at all of this idea. Additionally, I would suggest that "knowing the field" does not necessarily lead to positive results, as we've seen throughout the country for decades. (People in the field were who got us into this situation in the first place.) My strong reaction was because, yes, you are someone who has, to your credit, never hid that you are a relatively recent addition to the city and that you plan to be out as soon as you can. When I read your suggestion for a destructive roundabout recently, it got to me. An idea that misguided shouldn't even be put in local heads. You've produced great work in the past, and I don't mean to be unfair or discount that, but to me your contributions of late simply haven't lived up.

@Jeff

I agree with you on the South Mall arterial and your post in general. Just wanted to pipe in and suggest that you could also use Grand Street to go under the South Mall arterial.

Ideally Philip Street should connect across/under to Wendell Street. Unfortunately, the South Mall arterial is there to block that connection, again showing the long term effects of outdated autocentric decisions.

Sorry to continue an off-topic discussion, but for the I-787 removal advocates, NYSDOT's Traffic Data Viewer (https://www.dot.ny.gov/tdv) shows that I-787 carries 55,000 vehicles per day south of the Empire Plaza/Dunn interchange. From there to I-90, it carries 84,000 per day.

To put that into perspective, the busiest surface arterial in the region is the part of Central Ave between I-87 and New Karner Road, with 42,000 per day. That is not a pleasant roadway by any stretch of the imagination.

So, from the Thruway to the Dunn, a surface arterial might be plausible, but it still would be a barrier, and you'd still have to deal with the trail tracks. North of there, it would probably have to be a ten lane divided roadway, which would be little better than the freeway, I think.

Would Albany be a better city if I-787 had not been built? Quite probably, but getting rid of it now that it is here will not be easy.

Zed, traffic increases to road capacity (induced demand) That kind of justification is exactly what got us into this situation, and what this piece is trying to address.

Living in a restored VanRensselaer house on the east shore, I constantly must remind Albany planners/dreamers that we Rensselaer residents are situated ON the river, not a few blocks and an Interstate back away from it. Thus, when brainstorms arise to redevelop the Lumber District or even dock features, the City of Albany must consider the neighbors across the Hudson because noise, lights and dust have direct impact on our residences. And, there is a lot of vacant land here, facing Albany, that is yet to be developed.
My main concern with the funicular (absent the fun) proposal is that it would provide direct access to Rensselaer from iffy neighborhoods of Albany. We on the river paid dearly for our property (and pay dearly in taxes) and part of that payment is the SECURITY of having the Hudson Moat out front. Albany must consider its Rensselaer City and County neighbors, just as they do in the Port District operation.

So hilarious what people around here think about particularly the politicians. We are about to open a "convention center" and we have almost no good access around the city of Albany especially downtown. I was having a drink a Wellington's this weekend and was impressed and excited about the buzz created downtown from a wrestling match. There were actually people walking around! It was a sight to be seen. I overheard many many people saying things like " wow Albany has some incredible architecture" "this is the nicest hotel I've ever been in" "who knew Albany was so beautiful". It made me chuckle yet hopeful. The one constant complaint was lack of transportation and absence of any retail whatsoever...many asked me where to go for dinner....I mentioned everywhere from Druthers to Old English to DP's etc....every single person was turned off by walking in the bad weather to Druthers etc. 100% of them wouldn't even walk to old English. I'm still trying to figure out how the planners thought these people would go visit these places without adequate transport be it taxi or bus or trolley. It's beyond my comprehension that we are talking about an aerial tramway across a river and we can't institute a downtown circular trolley route!

B, I know. I'm just saying it's more complicated than people seem to think. If the freeway is removed, Albany should make sure that zoning is in place to allow shops and services people will need, so they want to move back into the city. If demand is "disinduced" (is that a word?) by reducing supply, neighborhoods that allow a good quality of life with fewer or shorter trips will be needed.

From a traffic volume standpoint, the easiest candidate for a freeway removal in Albany is probably the Slingerlands Bypass.

Dear OCULUS,
Have you considered moving to Mars, where you might find even more SECURITY? No "iffy" people from "iffy" neighborhoods there, I'm sure. You might encounter some green Martians but likely no humans of color, whom you seem to be concerned about.

Nice post, Sandy. My idea: create a specially branded bus to run frequently (every 10 or 15 minutes) between the train station and downtown Albany all day. Give it a catchy name (like the "Capital Connector") and a different livery from the rest of the CDTA fleet (say, red buses). Use a PR campaign to attract ridership. Even if the fare were reduced from CDTA's normal one, I expect it would be much less expensive to operate and faster to implement than a gondola, with similar convenience.

I second Rafael's suggestion. I love taking the bus, so I can forgive the poor frequency from downtown Albany to Amtrak Station in Rensselaer, but feel that CDTA and interested parties could really take advantage of this gapping hole and turn it into an opportunity.

I would take it a step further and say a "Capital Circulator" would be a great idea, in order to circulate folks downtown like many urban centers do through hop on and hop off services. Technically, CDTA has wonderful bus service down town, but to the uninitiated (read tourists and out of towners) you wouldn't know it or may be confused about how to take advantage of the differing lines. Therefore, I think a dedicated bus that circulates downtown (say from the Capitol, down State, L onto Broadway, L onto Clinton, L onto Pearl, down to Madison and up around the ESP and repeat) every 10 to 15 minutes would be a solid opportunity for city leaders to coordinate with CDTA, where they could market it under its own color and name, with associated marketing material on the bus to help folks frequent all of downtown's assets.

"...the easiest candidate for a freeway removal in Albany is probably the Slingerlands Bypass."

Zed - agreed. I use it to visit friends in Delmar and the road is often completely empty. Even at its busiest times it doesn't seem too heavily used. And it cuts a ditch between Harriman and the the Melrose neighborhood that would best be repaired/connected.

Huh????back on planet earth let's discuss the tramway and how to get around downtown Albany.....not many use the Slingerlands bypass???? Again huh????

@JayK

I've lived here all my life, so I guess my opinion counts, but wait, I've also been educated in city planning and architecture, so I guess I'm one of the evil ones too! What's a girl to do?

I am SO SICK of the parochial attitude of this area. We are not some totally unique place with city planning issues no one else in the world has, for crying out loud. Cities all along the rust belt deal with the same things - we should import and study what others have done successfully.

And heaven forbid we get fresh eyes on problem! And 3.5 years is certainly time enough for someone to get to know the area and come up with well reasoned and researched ideas.

The Gondola is ridiculous. It's a symptom of, not a cure for, a disjointed transportation system. Fixing it will require hard, boring work, not shiny baubles.

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