AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday, CapMetro and local government officials commemorated the first completed project from the city’s multi-billion-dollar public transit overhaul, Project Connect.

The program, approved by voters in November 2020, marked a substantial investment in light rail and regional rail lines, bus routes and other public transit resources within the greater Austin community.

But once upon a time, before Project Connect was put before voters, there was a different public transit system on the table: Gondolas.

What happened to Austin’s proposed gondola lines?

A November 2012 Wired article declared “gondolas could be the next great urban transportation device,” with Austin squarely in mind.

Roosevelt Island in New York, Medellin in Colombia and Portland, Oregon were all cited as key destinations that had embraced gondolas as a form of public transit.

Argo Design had concocted the concept of “Wire One Austin,” an 8.7-mile urban cable system proposed to run along South First Street from the University of Texas at Austin down to Slaughter Lane. The proposed system identified 19 stops along the route.

Gondola Map and Route_442136
(File photo)

Details provided by Argo Design at the time determined the monocable system’s cabins would be able to carry 15 passengers at a time, with the capacity to carry up to 3,600 every hour.

The estimated cost, at the time, came with a sticker price between $287-$555 million, along with an additional $3-$6 million in annual operating costs.

“With an enjoyable, quiet ride, this urban cable line would serve as a complement and amplifier of all other forms of transit,” reads Argo Design’s “Wire One” explainer.

In September 2016, the Central Texas Regional Mobility, alongside the City of Austin and CapMetro, approved funding a $16,000 study on the proposed gondola system. Come March 2017, it was determined the urban transit concept would not move forward.

Shared conclusions released by CapMetro determined gondolas were best suited for “niche” applications as opposed to serving as a primary form of public transit.

Gondola on South First in Austin_442135
Once upon a time, before Project Connect was put before voters, there was a different public transit system on the table: Gondolas. (File photo)

However, that wasn’t the last time gondolas were presented as a possible city transit option. In a May 2021 Austin Tourism Commission meeting, one of the recommendations for hotel occupancy tax (HOT) funding included transportation systems for tourists.

The Texas Tax Code permits that HOT funds can be used to support transportation systems that “transport tourists from hotels in and near the municipality to….tourist attractions in or near the municipality.” However, those HOT funds can’t be used on general public transit systems.

Proposed projects in this category include a tourist transportation system (e.g., a shuttle,
bus route, ferry, gondola, or other transportation system that does not primarily serve the general public) for transporting tourists between hotels, commercial areas and tourist attractions (e.g., Zilker Park or Barton Springs). While the general public could use such a tourist transportation system, HOT tax funding would be limited to the extent that tourists use the tourist transportation system.

May 2021 Austin Parks and Environment Working Group Recommendations

Plans for a tourist-specific gondola system haven’t progressed since that working group’s suggestion.