Malcolm G. McLaren, PE, SECB
Modern urban planning has been struggling to rise above the challenges being posed by urban density, economic constraints, geographic barriers and an ever-growing carbon footprint. Major metropolitan areas in the United States grappling with congestion and traffic issues have recently begun considering a progressive, cost-effective and innovative way to move people—urban aerial ropeway gondolas. Compared to the creation of new subways, highways, or rail lines—which often require disrupting huge numbers of people, expansive below-ground construction, huge costs and long periods of time—aerial ropeway gondolas are an extremely cost-effective and an environmentally-friendly option which work best when integrated within existing mass transit system networks.
Rensselaer Amtrak Station Aerial RenderingThe Capital District in New York represents an ideal location for an aerial ropeway installation. The Albany train station, ninth-largest in the Amtrak system is on the eastern side of the Hudson River in Rensselaer. The State Capitol building and its 11,000 workers are located on the western side of the river, along with central Albany, a convention center, the New York State Museum and many other attractions. A group of private developers posed the idea to public official and it was determined that a privately developed transit connection between Rensselaer and Albany could benefit the community, be inexpensively constructed in a short period of time and create an economic engine for development on both sides of the river. The Capital District Gondola Project proposed and headed by the privately funded Capital District Gondola, LLC (CDG) would enhance the area’s existing mass transit capabilities and extend from the Rensselaer Amtrak train station across the Hudson River with a stop near the Key Bank building adjacent to the Times Union Center in Albany, then up the hill to the at the Empire State Plaza state governmental complex as a second phase. Networks of connecting runs could eventually be included.
Proposed creation of the 4,500-foot aerial gondola system would make New York’s Capital Region a national leader in this rapidly emerging urban access technology. By providing a reliable new transportation option for both commuters and visitors, the project would drive economic development and job creation in the region. The first step in making this conceptualized solution a reality, has been to study the technical components as well as the regulatory and commercial aspects of the project.
The analysis of the possibilities and challenges of this revolutionary urban gondola system, unprecedented in the United States, was tasked to McLaren Engineering Group (McLaren). What the team ultimately concluded would help lay a foundation for the future of transportation infrastructure options to be used in the Albany area and cities across the country.
The objective of the initial Capital District Gondola Project feasibility study was to conduct a short duration assessment of the viability of an urban gondola system. During the initial three-month study, McLaren identified a 1-mile long operating corridor anchored by the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak Station on the east, and the Empire State Plaza on the west with an intermediate station at South Pearl Street in the vicinity of the Times Union Center and Key Bank Building. The gondola would have the ability to function 16 hours a day, seven days a week, in most weather conditions, and accommodate 3,000 people per hour per direction. Gondola cars would arrive every 12 seconds traveling at a speed of 14 miles per hour—bringing people from the Rensselaer Train Station to downtown Albany in just over four minutes.
McLaren developed the gondola system alignment layout and station placements considering the optimal travel path in terms of gondola function and clearance. The final alignment considered issues such as roadways, railroad tracks, future downtown development plans in both cities, utilities, roads, train tracks, while minimizing impacts on private property. This layout was then finalized by Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group, the project’s aerial ropeway engineering firm, based on preliminary engineering of a gondola system. McLaren developed preliminary designs of stations, custom line towers, and foundations to facilitate cost estimates for the feasibility study.
After the report ultimately determined the urban gondola system could successfully be built in one or two phases depending on sequencing and funding, the secondary feasibility report conducted by McLaren focused on analysis of the phasing alternatives and the user demand study. Together, they delved into the overarching impacts the region would experience with the development of the Capital District Gondola Project. The following were determined:
Economic Impact: Besides deeming the project a cost-efficient build, McLaren determined the gondola system could also spur economic development within the region—connecting the 825,000 people utilizing the Albany-Rensselaer Train Station each year to three key destinations: downtown Albany, the Capital Center and the Empire State Plaza. Requiring no major public infrastructure, the project was projected to generate 250 jobs, increase workforce training, and direct visitor spending of $3.6M per year with economic output of $61M over 30 years. Additionally, the project was expected to be a catalyst for increased development on the Rensselaer side—increased development on vacant land in Albany, renovation projects in Rensselaer, and rising property values resulting in significant property tax revenue.
Environmental Impact: As a green transit system option, the study found the Capital District Gondola Project to produce regional environmental benefits by creating near-zero-emissions, eliminating thousands of car trips per year and moving up to 6,000 people per hour electronically—equal to 1,200 full five-passenger vehicles. The ecofriendly gondola system could spur redevelopment within walking distance of each terminal in both cities and improve environmental quality of the region.
Community Impact: McLaren’s findings anticipated a jump in tourism within the Capital region propelled in part by the Capital District Gondola’s visually stunning five-minute ride, 150 feet above the Hudson River. The linkage of the two cities to create a single unified and exponentially more dynamic urban destination, could draw up to 900,000 riders per year to both Hudson River cities. The new, vibrant, aerially linked destination could serve as a catalyst to creating more options in Rensselaer and Albany for visitors to experience, new residents to live and a new blend of businesses within the two cities.
Conclusions of both feasibility studies concluded by McLaren, proved the Capital District Gondola Project to be technologically capable in addition to having an anticipated positive economic, environmental and social impact on the region.
Overall, the Capital District Gondola Project represents a collaborative community initiative that continues to experience tremendous support from government agencies, community leaders, transportation groups, potential passengers and numerous other stakeholders based in-part on the finding of McLaren’s feasibility studies. Capital District Gondola hopes to become a template for progressively improving urban transportation systems across the United States and complement other community revitalization initiatives to enhance the Capital Region’s existing intermodal transportation options. The team is currently awaiting final approval to begin to make the Capital District Gondola Project a reality.
This project was awarded the 2020 Engineering Excellence Platinum Award in Category A: Studies, Research and Consulting Engineering Services by the ACEC New York.