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Mt. Washington Tramway Leads to Zip Line Idea

Escape from Mt. Washington!

One day, you may be able to feel the wind in your hair on a zip line ride across the Ohio Photo from KDKA

One day, you may be able to feel the wind in your hair on a zip line ride across the Ohio
Photo from KDKA

Just wait, eventually whatever you used to like will come back in style one day. Bell bottoms? Swatch watches? Hair metal? Just be patient.

It seems like that with Mount Washington, too. Without a doubt, the Mount is the classic overlook spot to see our beautiful city. But it’s also a place that people seem fascinated with how to transport people off of it, as well. Sure, there’s the inclines, but back in 1990, then-City Councilman Jack Wagner proposed a tramway from Mt. Washington to the Point (that would have made our header graphic a little awkward).

Wagner’s idea was to create an iconic attraction that would act as a new symbol for the City, similar to the St. Louis Arch and San Francisco’s cable cars. Keep in mind that this was 1990; Pittsburgh was still trying to find its footing after the demise of the steel industry in the ’80’s. Pittsburgh was still years away from becoming an educational hub, a leader in green tech, and a movie making destination. The leaders of the day were searching.

As per the study commissioned by City Council to an outside consultant, which was probably some of the easiest money that company ever received, two steel cables would be stretched across the Ohio River. The route would go from Mount Washington to Three Rivers Stadium (Time machine alert!). The ride would take four minutes.

According to Wagner’s math-figurin’ at the time, the whole tramway would have cost $6.5 to $8M (1990 dollars, remember) to build. If it carried 615,000 passengers at a $3 round trip, the project would break even. That’s a yearly revenue of $1.85M, so if you assume that half of that would pay debt and the other half would be operation/maintenance plus salaries, it looks like the City was hoping to pay the construction debt off in roughly seven years.

That number of 615,000 passengers sounds high, but Wagner was hoping to tie it in to the soon-to-be-opened Carnegie Science Center near Three Rivers Stadium. City officials were predicting that 3 million visitors would pass through the Science Center when it opened. As with most overly-optimistic projections when a politician has to sell an expenditure to the general public, that figure missed the mark. This 2010 Pittsburgh Business Times article reported that the 2008 attendance figures at the Science Center were 711,263, buoyed mostly by the Bodies exhibit and the Titanic artifacts display.

Wagner also had this doozy of a quote, regarding the potential safety of the tramway.

“The safest form of transportation in the world is the elevator,” the city councilman said. “And this is simply an elevator in a semi-horizontal position.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that short statement. I would hazard that the safest form of transportation is walking, especially in a non-urban setting. It also seems that then-Councilman Wagner had never seen a movie where the villain snaps an elevator cable and people go plummeting to their death. Or when people get stuck in an elevator for hours. I imagine that there aren’t a lot of escalator mishaps, either, now that I think about it. And finally, an elevator in a semi-horizontal position is no longer an elevator, Jack.

This trip down memory lane all brings us to a more recent venture to further monetize Mount Washington. A group called ZipPitt is proposing to install a zip line from Mount Washington across the Ohio River and down to the North Shore, landing in the area of the Rivers Casino. On their website is a vertigo-inducing Prezi. The premise is that the zipline will descend 420 feet over a half-mile at 50 mph. Fifty. Miles. Per. Hour. I hope the people chit-chillin’ on the Ohio underneath the zipline don’t mind getting a little pee dripped on their heads.

Hilariously, another slide talks about how the zipline can unite different entertainment zones. It talks about how you could go to dinner at LeMont and then take the zipline to the casino or Heinz Field. Imagine that for a second. You’re a dude and dressed up in a nice suit. Your lady friend has on a classy black mini dress and stiletto heels. After a romantic dinner of lobster for her and filet mignon for you, you decide to try your luck at the casino. You sweep her up in your arms….and strap her into a harness and push her over the Ohio River at 50 mph. Then, just like James Bond, you make your own getaway from Mount Washington via the zipline, adjusting your tie on the way down.

And how exactly are you supposed to get back from the North Shore, presuming that you parked on the Mount?

As per ZipPitt’s founder, Adam Young, in this 2013 article, the cost to build the zipline would be $3M and the cost for a ride would be around $30. Recently, Zip Pitt received a $1000 grant from Awesome Pittsburgh to further research the idea.

Times have changed for Pittsburgh. Instead of fumbling around and looking for a hook to put Pittsburgh on the map, Pittsburgh is now an attraction on its own. A great deal of work has been done to allow people to reconnect with the rivers, so why are we now interested in flying over them? The zipline idea is one that would be intriguing, but seems destined to be put in the bin with other ideas gone by.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

4 Comments on Mt. Washington Tramway Leads to Zip Line Idea

  1. Wagner was also the genius behind the Wabash Tunnel, which the city and state spent millions to renovate and is now used daily by absolutely nobody. That money could have been better spent fixing up the car eating potholes on East Warrington, which looks like someone laid tracks down in Dresden immediately post bombing. Point is, Jack has some lousy ideas about how to spend our money on transit no one uses.

    • Kevin Creagh // December 19, 2014 at 1:56 PM //

      Come back on Monday for more transit fun — this time an original idea from Steve and I.
      Thanks for reading.

  2. Return trip up the mountain will be via the Clemente Catapult ?, stationed near 6th Street. A giant pile of chipped ham will be dropped on Grandview as a landing target.

  3. I went on a 1/4 zipline in Hawaii and it was awesome, safe, and fun. There could be a “newbie” price for tourists, but also a “commuter” price for those who would use it each day. Imagine the buzz for Mt. Wash once people start talking about how they zipline to work downtown each day!

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