Portland Aerial Tram

The below story reprinted from an article in
The Oregonian (January, 2007)

Linking Oregon Health Science University’s (OHSU) Marquam Hill Campus to its first building in the South Waterfront, the Portland’s Aerial Tram transports researchers, students, medical professionals, patients and visitors between Portland’s foremost medical institution and its newest development.

In December, 2006 the Portland Aerial Tram began its Operational Phase and opened for OHSU employees and students. On January 27, 2007, the Tram opened to the public when 5,000 people signed up for free rides on both the 27th and 28th.  The free tickets went so fast that Tram operators decided to open the Tram to the public for free rides every Saturday in February, 2007, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The 3,300-foot tram extends from the main Marquam Hill campus to a terminus at Southwest Gibbs Street and Moody Avenue near the Willamette River. On December 15, 2006, the Portland Aerial Tram began ferrying Oregon Health & Science University employees. To catch a ride on one of the nickel-colored pods requires an OHSU employee badge. The Oregonian reported that within the first hour, 105 people took the tram between OHSU’s main hilltop campus and the Center for Health & Healing on the South Waterfront. How much will it cost to ride the tram when it opens to the public in mid-January, 2006? That depends upon the Portland City Council. Most likely it will be about $4.

The final cost of the tram came to almost $57 million with the public paying about eight and a half million dollars. The budget includes contingencies and utility relocations along with street trees and streetlights on Southwest Gibbs Street. Key neighborhood improvements included a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5. Doppelmayr CTEC, a Swiss firm supplied and installed the tram cars and equipment.

Portland Aerial Transportation (PATI) is the private non-profit organization empowered by the City of Portland to oversee the design, construction, and operation of the Portland Aerial Tram.

Planning for the Tram

Mayor Vera Katz, the classic big-city American leader searching for big ideas to reshape the skyline, hooked onto the idea. She delivered the City Council’s approval in 2002, becoming the tram’s ultimate godmother.

The high-speed connection was considered the linchpin to opening prime riverfront real estate locked up for years by the asphalt ribbons that pinched it into the Willamette River.

With the tram to carry it, Oregon Health & Science University agreed to expand on the riverfront, and developers signed on to build ever-taller condo towers with million-dollar views.

Then there was a ballooning construction budget, followed by finger-pointing between City Hall and Portland’s biggest employer, OHSU. The tram teetered on the brink of courthouse drama in 2005 before Mayor Tom Potter leaned on his close council friend, Commissioner Dan Saltzman, to rescue the tram with more city cash.

The silver, bubblelike tram cars, still wrapped in clear plastic, made their first flight on an unusually sunny November afternoon. The new transit option opened for OHSU employees in mid-December. Next Saturday is the public opening, but when Portland got hit last week by a snowstorm, the tram opened early to ferry people up and off the hill.

For the white-collar set, the tram is a sign of progress with billions of dollars spent on OHSU’s expansion and the 130-acre South Waterfront revival.

For the skeptical, the tram is a reminder of lax government management. Quoted at $15.5 million in 2002, the tram today will land at $57 million. (The city says this time that it’s not a penny more.)

For nonbelievers, the tram is a symbol of the growing separation between the wealth of downtown and the poverty of far North and East Portland.

When she gave the final OK for the tram, Katz said it could be Portland’s new postcard. The city’s version of the Space Needle or the Statue of Liberty.


The tram has two backup diesel-powered engines beneath the South Waterfront station. The first will keep the tram running at half speed until the electric motor comes back online. The second backup runs at 10 percent of normal speed and is there just to get the cars back to the stations and everyone on solid ground.

OK, but what if everything fails, and the cars get stuck in midair? How will I get down?

The engineers say the possibility of a midair stall is remote. So remote, they prefer we don’t talk about it. But if it happens, you don’t want to be up there unless you don’t mind a little rope burn.

If it stalls, the tram’s driver opens the door, hangs a rope from the frame out of the car and tosses it to firefighters on the ground. They climb up into the car by rope and help the passengers down one by one in a harness.

That might never happen, but who wants to shimmy down a rope? How high would the rope ride be?

That varies depending on where you are when the thing stops. It could be 75 feet or 175.

The Neighborhood

Aerial tram passengers: Welcome to a neighborhood being born.

When you arrive at the lower tram landing, the scene might look like a construction zone. Brand-new high-rises and streets sit beside a decades-old industrial barge operation.

You’re getting an early look at the South Waterfront of the future — Portland’s latest experiment in urban living and economic development. It’s a work in progress, but the tram landing is a great place to see what’s already built and visualize what’s coming next.

The area around the tram landing is emerging as a transportation hub. The Portland Streetcar stops across Southwest Moody Avenue from the landing and can shuttle you to Portland State University in less than 10 minutes. A streetcar extension, TriMet buses and eventually a pedestrian bridge across the interstate are planned for the site.

Next to the landing, a tall, bulky building brings the future to life. It’s the OHSU Center for Health & Healing, the first of four high-rises the university expects to build in the next 20 years. One will rise on top of the parking garage just south of the health center, and two more will eventually emerge to the east.

Speaking of amenities, plenty are planned that will be open to the public — such as a greenway trail on the banks of the Willamette, lush with vegetation to shade the water for endangered salmon as they swim by. Also, perhaps, a public beach along the river, public viewpoints, an adjacent restaurant and a water taxi landing.

As you’d expect, the neighborhood will have its own little parks. The first one is already growing grass, just two blocks south of the tram landing. A permanent design is in the works, even as the city and landowners haggle over future park sites.

What’s up with the out-of-place, blue industrial building just east of the tram landing? That’s Zidell Marine Corp., a barge-building operation owned by Portland’s Zidell family, which has had a presence on the waterfront since the early 20th century. Zidell once dismantled old World War II Navy ships below the Ross Island Bridge but now mostly builds barges. The Zidells have said they plan to join the South Waterfront redevelopment wave, but they’ve fought with the city and the waterfront’s first developers for years over their share of tram costs and other amenities.

South of Zidell and the tram landing, the tan-trimmed matching towers of the Meriwether condominiums show what much of the area could look like a decade from now: filled with condos with stunning views up and down the river.

Just west of the Meriwether, which drew its first residents last April, the elliptically shaped John Ross condos show how high South Waterfront buildings can rise: up to 325 feet tall, or 31 stories, in the case of the John Ross. The city requires a narrow width on buildings of that height and won’t allow buildings taller than 250 feet — the height of the Meriwether — on blocks closest to the river.

Beyond the area already planned or under construction, much of the land from the Ross Island Bridge south to the Old Spaghetti Factory will be filled with towers. A scale model of what it might look like is open to the public at the Discovery Center, a showroom on Southwest Bancroft Street built by South Waterfront’s developers.

North of the bridge, OHSU is planning a university campus expansion of shorter buildings. The MAX light-rail line could swing by there some day, on its way across a new bridge.

At the tram landing, it’s hard to imagine so much change to an area that, for decades, changed so little. Don’t blink. You may miss a new building.

The Man, the Tram and How Each Made the Other Reach for the Sky

When everyone else ducked for cover, the politicians put their careers in the hands of the 47-year-old Benson Tech graduate by the name of Rob Barnard. He took over the tram amid a historic political meltdown. At the time, the tram was a City Hall punchline, nearly triple its original budget and 41/2 months behind schedule. Commissioner Sam Adams, who runs the city’s transportation office, couldn’t find a private consultant who would touch the job.

“I chose to take it as an opportunity for the community,” Barnard says. “For Portland at large, we had to get to a win.”

One year later, Barnard’s bosses, co-workers and an Oregon Health & Science University executive say he’s most responsible for opening the Swiss-made people mover on schedule and on budget.

Barnard put in a 100-hour, seven-day work ethic that approached manic. Co-workers dubbed him “The Cleaner.” More than anything, Barnard willed the tram to the finish line in time with the motto: “The consequences of failure to the city are too great.”

But at one point, failure appeared to be where the city was headed.

When he moved on to the tram, Barnard found a mess. The city had his predecessor working only part time, and oversight had slipped. “The budget was unclear,” says Gardner, Barnard’s boss. “The tasks were unclear. The stuff from the architect was unclear.”

Barnard started in on the mundane tasks required to understand such a complex project. He dug through mounds of paper to learn how the tram worked, what it would cost and when it could be finished. It was a race against the calendar. The cabins had to be moving at the same time OHSU opened its first South Waterfront building. If Barnard failed, OHSU could sue the city for damages — $83,000 a day.

To speed things up, Barnard put work crews on double shifts and called in more city staff. He soon realized the costs were actually far more than the $45 million budget he inherited.

Barnard ran dangerously close to running out of money. Without a City Hall infusion, he’d have to halt construction on the key link in the city’s biggest economic development deal in history.

In February 2006, Barnard flew to Switzerland to sort out the schedule with the tram’s engineers at Doppelmayr.

Barnard and Ernst Egli, Doppelmayr’s salt-and-pepper-haired lead manager, compared schedules in a conference room that looked out into the production shop.

The schedule didn’t look good.

Egli had his crews in another country at the same time Barnard wanted them in Portland. “How can I make that work?” Barnard recalls Egli asking.

Barnard says he pushed back, laying out the political troubles and possible lawsuit that awaited across the globe. “We’ve got to find a solution,” he said.

Barnard says he stiffened and looked hard into Egli’s eyes. He didn’t say a word.

Barnard flew back to Portland but told none of his bosses.

When Egli visited a few weeks later, he said that if Barnard could finish the two stations on time, they could make it work.

Barnard says he looked Egli in the eyes again and promised: “I will make those dates.”

Problems and Innovation

In November 2006, Barnard celebrated one year on the tram project by watching Doppelmayr move the first cabin right on time.

He’d spent a year poring over spreadsheets to track every detail. In the process, he settled on a Dec. 15 deadline. He got the city, OHSU and Kiewit Pacific, which built the tram’s two stations, to agree to a $57 million price tag. He worked himself so hard, he says, one night he fell asleep in his car stopped at a red light. “Whatever it takes,” he likes to say.

By then, the big pressure was off, but Barnard kept at the small things.

He changed the slope on a walkway at the OHSU station. He bounded around, calling out to workers by name to try to boost morale. “Dan,” he shouted across the job site, flashing a thumbs-up. “Good work last night.”

When Barnard took on the tram, he was supposed to finish in mid-February 2007.

Barnard handed OHSU the keys Dec. 1, 2006.

Weeks later, Barnard took what he figured was his 75th ride. He climbed to the top of the upper station. The city landscape rolled out below, and the rubber tram wheels whirred next to him, sending a car down the hill.

Neighbors moan about the tram’s view-blocking middle tower. Politicians carp about its cost. But Barnard chooses to see only good things about the tram he helped bring to the Portland skyline. He even manages to do it without sounding hokey.

“It’s a real symbol for how Portland solves tough problems in an innovative way,” Barnard says. “I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

Cars Names:  Walt and Jean

Portland’s silver tram twins car were officially named Walt and Jean in early January, 2007. The people-ferrying pods, named after Walt Reynolds and Jean Richardson, will spend their days gracefully passing each other in the air.

Walt Reynolds, 86, was the first African American to graduate from the state medical school that would become OHSU.  After medical school, Reynolds opened a family medicine practice in Northeast Portland, delivering babies, mending broken bones and making nighttime house calls for more than 30 years.  He now lives in Beaverton.

Jean Richardson, 80, was the first woman to graduate with a civil engineering degree in Oregon. More than 60 years after classmates at Oregon State University told her that no one would hire a woman for a civil engineering job, Richardson had a long career as a civil engineer.  She ended her career working on Portland’s Columbia River sewage treatment plant.  She now lives in McMinnville.


I don’t like heights. How will I do on the tram?

The cabins have frosted glass more than 3 feet up the sides that helps shield the view down. But on a recent ride down from OHSU, a group of women linked together arm in arm and shrieked as the tram jiggled and swayed its way over the middle tower. The city also changed the designs on the upper station to make it more enclosed and less airy for people scared of heights.

When the wind whips up, will it blow the cabins around?

As long as winds stay below 50 mph, the tram will run smoothly. The arms that attach the cars to the cables were built to reduce the wind’s effects, and the cars’ bubblelike design makes them aerodynamic. The cars might sway a little but not enough to be uncomfortable. A consistent 50 mph wind would send the cabins back to their stations until the wind lessens. The cars themselves are enclosed and block out rain.

Even when the cars are moving, wind and rain could make the experience less than comfortable. Both stations have roofs, but the consultant’s report said the upper station and South Waterfront station have inadequate protection from wind and rain, which could make waiting in the stations for the tram a little too open.

We keep hearing about a big earthquake happening someday. Could the tram withstand it?

About as well as Oregon Health & Science University’s hospitals. The tram’s two stations and tower, the parts that keep the cars aloft, were built to the same earthquake standards as the hospitals. That said, if the stations shake, so do the tram’s cables. After a large quake, tram operators would stop the cars to check for damage.

The city says no one can be certain about what size earthquake would make the ride uncomfortable. The answer depends on too many unknowns.

Could a quake snap the cables?

Art Pearce, a city tram manager, says, “It would have to be a massive, massive event.”

The 1996 floods soaked us, and the tram’s South Waterfront station is just a few blocks from the river. Could flooding shut this thing down?

Not unless it passes the 100-year flood line.


Bring it on. The thing can take direct strikes. Its wires are grounded.

OK, but Oregon gets some nasty ice storms. What if ice coats the cables, weighs them down and snaps them?

Ha! The Swiss engineers scoff at your ice. Rob Barnard, the city’s tram manager, says they build these things over European mountain glaciers. Oregon’s wimpy ice, Barnard says calmly, “is not an issue.”

The solution: Run the cars round-the-clock to prevent ice from collecting on the wires.