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    Shirley Leung

    Sorry, I’m not ready to jump on the Southie gondola bandwagon

    A rendering of the view over Summer Street for the proposed South Boston Cableway project.
    Handel Architects via City of Boston
    A rendering of the view over Summer Street for the proposed South Boston Cableway project.

    To build a gondola or not, that is the question.

    Or is it?

    Millennium Partners’ latest gambit is an aerial cable-car system to solve the South Boston Waterfront’s transportation problems.


    It is an idea that’s even more radical than changing the shadow laws on Boston Common — and dangling $153 million as leverage — to smooth the way for a high-rise tower in Winthrop Square.

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    Yes, Millennium was behind that, too. So let’s be clear about one thing: Millennium is about Millennium.

    This time the developer’s subsidiary, Cargo Ventures, is offering $100 million for a 1.1-mile cable-car system that would have three stops: South Station, the Southie convention center, and the marine industrial park, where Millennium wants to build massive offices for life sciences, tech, and light manufacturing.

    No doubt about it, just as with changing the shadow laws, the biggest beneficiary would be Millennium. The gondola system would bolster transportation options that would make the company’s project more attractive to potential tenants.

    Even without a formal proposal, the gondola concept has gotten an incredible amount of lift, perhaps out of desperation that something needs to be done about congestion in the rapidly growing Seaport. It’s also a reflection that few have faith in the MBTA alone and want as many transportation alternatives as possible.


    Millennium will tell you a cable-car system will benefit the entire district, and that it’s better than bringing in rail or bolstering the Silver Line and conventional bus routes. They’ve run the numbers. Trust them.

    Should we?

    Ask the companies that have thousands of employees coming in and out of the Seaport today, and their wish list is more down to earth.

    “The most common request we get is more Silver Line vehicles and more ferries,” said Pat Sullivan, executive director of the Seaport Transportation Management Association, a group that represents about 50 companies, including Fidelity, Vertex, John Hancock, and General Electric. “Certainly $100 million, you can buy a lot of Silver Line buses.”

    At roughly $1 million or so a pop, you could buy close to 100 new Silver Line buses — enough to completely replace the existing Seaport fleet while doubling its size.


    The current line is oversubscribed, and many companies operate their own private bus shuttles to supplement it.

    Or you could spread the money around. Invest some in the Silver Line vehicles and create bus-only lanes, as well as buy a small fleet of ferries and upgrade some docks.

    Now some of you may be saying, if it’s Millennium’s money, shouldn’t Millennium decide how to spend it?

    Sort of. Millennium will be expected to provide a mitigation package to the community to offset the 1.8 million-square-foot development it is proposing in the marine industrial park. That’s usually a negotiation with the city, so it’s not a case of gondola or nothing.

    But beyond that, the gondola would almost certainly require some kind of public help. For example, the City of Boston would need to provide street space for 13 support towers.

    Then there’s this: While Millennium has proposed to privately finance and build the system, it’s still unclear who would maintain and operate it.

    Congressman Stephen Lynch, whose district includes the South Boston Waterfront, doesn’t have a preference on who operates the gondola but wants it to be integrated with the MBTA for seamless connections to trains and buses at South Station. Let’s just say the MBTA isn’t exactly jumping at the opportunity.

    But if history is any guide, we also need to prepare for the worst-case scenario. If Millennium ends up operating the gondola system itself but ultimately can’t make a go of it, the city and state should be prepared to step up. That’s what happened in the 1940s, when the state had to assume control of subways and streetcars from private owners who kept losing money.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. As so is Millennium. The company has yet to formally file its plan for its Southie waterfront project. Millennium’s development approach is as unorthodox as the gondola idea. It seems like Millennium wants the public to bless its newfangled transportation fix before we even see the rest of its plan. Which raises the question: What’s in that plan?

    It’s time for an independent analysis, and I was delighted to learn this week that’s exactly what’s happening. The city has been itching to evaluate transportation options for the Summer Street corridor — where Millennium is proposing the gondola route — and in late spring Boston plans to conduct a yearlong study. The gondola plan will be included.

    Millennium has a track record of doing transformative developments such as the Ritz-Carlton or its Millennium Tower on the old Filene’s site. What we see here is another bold proposal from Millennium in a city starving for fresh ideas.

    But how do we know if a bold idea is a bad one? That’s why we need the city to do its homework.

    Shirley Leung can be reached at and on Twitter @leung.