The billionaire-backed proposal for an aerial cablecar that would ferry people over neighborhoods and highways to Dodgers games passed a critical regulatory test Thursday, but some Los Angeles residents remain concerned the project will drain taxpayer money, increase displacement in communities, and snatch up public park land. 

The “gondola” would be a 1.2-mile aerial cablecar line beginning at Union Station, running above Alameda Street in Chinatown, and dropping passengers off at the eastern edge of Dodger Stadium. 

With the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Metro) approval of the environmental impact report (EIR), a mandated statement outlining a project’s potential impacts to the natural environment, the project must now seek approval by the LA City Council, California Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, California State Park and Recreation Commission, and the California Transportation Commission.

Only after the proposal is approved by each of those regulatory bodies will the project return to Metro for final approval. Board members gave no indication Thursday of how long that process would take.

What’s the history of the gondola project?

The $500 million privately-funded gondola proposal was conceived by businessman Frank McCourt, the former LA Dodgers baseball team owner and current Dodger Stadium parking lots co-owner.

The project was first proposed in 2018 by LA Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of McCourt’s company, McCourt Global. He says he later “donated” – effectively transferring project implementation and operation authority – the gondola project to a nonprofit called Zero Emissions Transit, whose board includes the former California Secretary of Transportation David Kim.

Early backers like former LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said the gondola would allow Dodger fans to skip sitting in the notorious traffic jams around the stadium and instead take a free, seven-minute cablecar ride to the stadium. They also claimed the gondola would transport 5,000 people per hour and could take 3,000 cars off the road before and after each Dodger game or concert at the stadium.

Los Angeles residents who oppose the proposed gondola connecting Union Station to Dodger Stadium wave their hands during a LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority meeting Thursday, February 22, 2024. (Martín Macías, Jr. / LA Public Press)

Along the proposed cablecar route, business owners, environmental organizations, and residents have expressed concerns about, among many things, the gondola limiting access to parks and decreasing housing affordability.

Residents of the La Plaza, Chinatown, Solano Canyon, William Mead, and Elysian Park – neighborhoods along the route – are also concerned that cable cars could pass so close to the roofs of their homes; as close as 30 feet by one estimate.

A Community Benefits Agreement for the gondola project

Metro’s board of governing directors voted 11-0 on Thursday to approve both the gondola’s environmental impact report, as well as an amending motion from County Supervisor Hilda Solis to develop a community benefits agreement.

Since the gondola would be a public mass transit project in LA County, Metro is the lead agency responsible for ensuring the proposal satisfies environmental safety standards set by the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Before the vote, Solis introduced a motion requiring Metro to implement a community benefits agreement that addresses residents’ concerns about the gondola development.

Among other conditions, the motion bars gondola operators from using any public funds for the project, provides Chinatown residents with free gondola rides, bars the use of eminent domain, and calls for investments in Chinatown businesses.

Solis said the conditions of the motion for a community benefits agreement would be enforceable and non-negotiable. Solis represents LA County’s First Supervisorial District, which sprawls between Downtown LA and Azuza, to Pomona and Rowland Heights.

“For the project to win my vote, it needs transparency and guarantees addressing community priorities and concerns” Solis said. “There’s a real foundation for the community’s hesitation to support the project without safeguards.”

Supporters of the project along with members of the Stop the Gondola coalition (a group of residents, business owners, and community organizations) filled the Metro board room during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Reyna Dominguez, a resident of the William Mead homes near Chinatown, told board members she supports the proposed cablecar.

“Our community would love to ride the gondola to our Dodger games,” Dominguez said.

LA City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez asked Metro board members to oppose the gondola and preserve park space.

“I grew up in this district. I remember what LA State Historic Park was before. It was nothing but railroad tracks and trash, and now it’s a park for our community,” Hernandez said. “This is another example of the community getting left behind because there’s not even access to that park for [residents of] William Mead or Solano Canyon.”

Last month, Hernandez introduced a motion barring any LA City Council action that would advance the gondola project until the LA Department of Transportation conducts a study on public transportation alternatives for Dodger Stadium.

While proponents have said the gondola would provide a net-zero emission transit option, critics have pointed out that an express bus already operates from Union Station and that Metro could simply expand that line. A University of California-Los Angeles study projected that the gondola would only reduce traffic by about 600 cars during sold-out Dodger games.

Metro board member and LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn was present for the vote Thursday but chose to abstain from voting. 

Metro board member Paul Krekorian, an LA City Councilmember representing District 2 in the San Fernando Valley and president of the LA City Council, said in the meeting the board’s vote doesn’t signify final approval for the gondola, nor does it influence how other regulatory agencies will evaluate the proposal.

“This doesn’t mean we are greenlighting it,” Krekorian said. “Land use approvals are in the hands of the City of Los Angeles.”  

The proposal not only faces the challenge of securing approval from other agencies but also sees persistent opposition from resident advocacy coalitions, philanthropic organizations, and preservation groups. 

Phyllis Ling, founder of the Stop The Gondola Coalition, said in a statement the residents and organizations in the coalition are disappointed in the vote but will continue their work opposing the project.

“Today, the Metro board has failed our communities and effectively decided a billionaire’s private tourist attraction is more important than investing in what our communities truly need – real public transportation and protected green space,” Ling said. “If Metro failed to hold LA ART accountable to provide a complete funding plan as a condition to move the project forward, what assures the community these conditions will be enforced?”

Critics have said they’re concerned Metro hasn’t considered how the gondola’s $10 million annual operation costs will be paid and don’t want taxpayers on the hook for any budget overruns.

Sarah Reyes of The California Endowment said in a statement the healthcare foundation remains opposed to the gondola because it could increase traffic, pollution, noise, and trash for residents. 

“The community deserves more than vague assurances and promises of redress; they require transparency, accountability, and a meaningful say in determining the future of the community in which they live,” Reyes said.

The California Endowment previously filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the gondola, arguing it’s a private tourist attraction, not a public transit project that would benefit the community.

Will a court decide the fate of the gondola?

After the vote Thursday, a nonprofit preservation group called LA Parks Alliance said in a statement it would file a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the gondola’s environmental impact report on the grounds that it violates CEQA.

The organization argues that the report fails to recognize that the gondola’s proposed use of land and airspace at LA State Historic Park is illegal since state parks are set aside to preserve their natural and historical values in perpetuity. The park was built after a 20-year struggle by community members and any commercial projects are only allowed if they’re authentic to the park’s history, according to the group.

John Given, the organization’s legal counsel, said in the statement the courts will clearly see the project as illegal under state law.

“This project clearly violates CEQA, but more importantly is being forced on a neighborhood that has had to endure more than its share of projects that don’t benefit the community,” Given said. “I believe the courts will recognize what our elected representatives on Metro’s Board have not, and correct this egregious abuse of discretion.”

Another aspect of the lawsuit would focus on future development plans on Dodger Stadium parking lots. After McCourt purchased the Dodgers and the 260 acres surrounding the stadium, he announced the Next 50 project which would bring “modern amenities” to fans.

Critics of the gondola believe Next 50 is the logical next step for McCourt and would see him develop a retail and entertainment complex similar to LA Live that could house a hotel and luxury housing.

“This EIR does not study the environmental impact of those obviously foreseeable plans, which greatly undercuts the primary claimed benefit of reduction in traffic and greenhouse gases,” the statement said. “That is piecemealing and it’s a clear violation of CEQA.”

In Metro documents, the agency acknowledges that some kind of commercial development at the Dodger Stadium parking lots co-owned by McCourt has been contemplated.

Solis’ motion for community benefits that was approved Thursday includes a provision that would terminate the gondola’s lease agreements at Union Station if any commercial developments don’t include affordable housing.