Portland Tram

The new big attraction in Oregon is the Portland Aerial Tram.  The Portland Tram will whisk people from the lower “South Waterfront” terminal (located next to OHSU Center for Health & Healing),  to the upper terminal located at the Kohler Pavilion on the main campus of Oregon Health and Science University.   At 22 miles per hour the Portland Tram trip takes  three-minutes as it rises over Interstate 5, the Lair Hill neighborhood, and the Southwest Terwilliger Parkway.  Sounds fun!

17 thoughts on “Portland Tram

  1. It looked pretty cool when I saw it under construction. It was quite a nice view. The tram may alleviate the traffic and parking problems up near the hospital, which I know will be appreciated by at least one of the residents; as I recall, one objective was to revitalize the neighborhood at the foot of the tram.

  2. As a tourist I really like this type of “attraction” because they are fun and give great city perspectives. However at $57 million one has to wonder if a project like this can ever really return to taxpayers the investment, even in indirect ways like traffic congestion alleviation.

    Just saw a good PBS show about the Seattle Monorail debacle, where once enthusiastic voters pulled the plug after financing issues. I wish we’d study these things more because a rather spectacular amount of money is wasted each year as politics shapes and then dismantles expensive projects, or others go through due to pressure rather than economic viability.

  3. You want to see a sensibly designed and very profitable monorail…you just go to Las Vegas. Private enterprise doesn’t fool around with extraneous special interest groups. When a casino needed high-speed transfer from a parking lot to a casino, they built one.

    The reason municipal monorails run into trouble is that costs are distributed but benefits are often very concentrated (and sometimes illusory).

    In Los Angeles a light rail link took so long to get built that when finished the major employer whose employees were supposed to ride it was no longer in town.

    In Seattle, the monorail was privately owned and the owners of course had different views as to how much they should be paid for it. Its generally agreed that ‘footprint’ in existing urban areas is a major consideration but elevated rails are often an eyesore too. I think its more the fact that things are always designed with the monorail stops being so slow to navigate that its not a speed advantage to take a monorail. ALL the merchants and landlords want a stop near them but want the costs borne by “The Taxpayers” rather than the adjacent merchants and property owners.

  4. municipal monorails run into trouble is that costs are distributed but benefits are often very concentrated (and sometimes illusory).

    Yes, and not just a monorails problem.

    I’m also very impressed with the Las Vegas Monorail project which was expensive but also seems to have been well conceived. I did note the rates had gone up from about $3 (March 2006) to $5 per ride (November).

  5. The incredible cost that seemed to go up every time it was mentioned (of course, the hospital did pay for most of it) for such a limited route has had a lot of Portlanders less than thrilled, at least based on the majority of local radio callers I’ve heard anytime the subject of this silly thing comes up. The cost to ride will likely be something like $4 instead of less than $2 as originally stated. At least it looks cool.

    Check out this local article: http://www.katu.com/news/5138496.html

  6. Remember those old European movies where people rode up and down on vertical conveyor belt type things that they simply stepped directly onto and directly off of? When will we finally get those here?

  7. Maggie / But OHSU employees are exempt from paying that fare, which is what steams a lot of people, and I say that as someone who is closely related to someone who works at OHSU. 😛 It’s too early to say if it was worth the considerable expense….it it revitalizes the section on the waterfront that it connects to, then it likely recoups its cost in tax revenue.

  8. Maggie and Paul I was wondering what the Portland perspective was on the project and how it was funded. Minneapolis has a very expensive train project that, due to more ridership than predicted, is now billed as a success by many. However I think often “success” is defined as taking in enough money to keep maintaining the projects – unlike biz you often don’t have to worry about repaying the cost to build them.

    My gut reaction is that we should focus on projects that address very specific community needs and that they should be paid for by the beneficiaries. When in doubt, don’t spend tax money.

  9. Joe: The project had modest public support until the estimates to build it nearly tripled in the midst of construction. Local neighborhoods UNDER the line were against it from the get-go, but OHSU has run out of room on the hill for new construction so it seemed the only viable alternative for expanding their facility. Many in the city were aghast at how badly the total cost estimate missed the mark, suspecting collusion and/or a cover up of some kind. IT IS bringing all kinds of new construction, new businesses and accompanying economic development to a section of the waterfront that had languished for decades. I think the jury is still out on the cost/benefit side of this…the cost overruns were horrific. I am not sure how much percentage-wise of the cost the Hospital is paying, it is a joint effort in terms of funding.

  10. 12/Joe: For all that is good about light rail, one element that gets little publicity is alternative use of funds. Portland’s light rail was very, very expensive to build. For the same amount of money you could have bought a bus fleet big enough for 3 L.A.’s and built a hub and spoke system that would be the envy of every city in America. Light rail is aesthetically very pleasing, bureaucrats love the cache it confers on the city, but as an economic proposition it is riddled with problems. That fact gets virtually no discussion because of all the special interests that benefit from it, but it is the hard dollars and cents reality.

  11. Paul thanks for the detail, and your point about “alternative use of funds” is excellent, though rarely taken seriously enough if it’s considered at all.

    Accountability is a big problem with these big money projects. As Fools gold noted above you’ll often see problems when the cost (and cost overruns) are distributed widely while the benefits are concentrated.

    Thus there’s more incentive for very focused efforts to promote these projects than for efforts to kill expensive projects. Also, few people can do the kind of big math required so it’s not until the later stages that the math assumptions get carefully examined.

  12. I’ve read that the hospital, OHSU, is paying 85% of the cost (see link above to katu.com article).

    I thought I heard, too, that durin our recent “snow storm” when cars were sliding down hills bouncing off of each other that some were allowed to take the tram up the big hill to the hospital even though it was not yet officially open to the public quite yet. On days like that, I suppose it might be worth the possible $4 they want to charge if someone was really committed to getting to that particular hospital. I’d just save my latte money and go to one on flatter land.

    It will be interesting to see in the long run whether the benefit does outweigh the ridiculous cost of both building the tram and the cost to operate it (which, by the way, was also increased to almost double estimated – hence likely a $4 ride instead of more like $1.70).

    But it really does look cool now that the wrappers are off. The first unmanned test runs were done while still wrapped which looked kind of funny 🙂 The reason was that once the wrapping was off, Portland owned it and was responsible for it.

    Here’s the first run, still in wrappings:

  13. 13/Joe: Naysayers will accuse me of being anti-mass transit, but I have long been a supporter and a user of it. Of all the ironies, I love the light rail and think it’s one of the cooler things PDX has. The person who first enlightened me about this was also a staunch supported of mass transit, a regular user, but an engineer who was closely connected to the cost analysis studies done on such projects. When he showed my how much transit resources you could buy for the amount they spend on light rail, it stunned me. It also frustrates me that the topic NEVER comes up in the media, and certainly is never brought up by Tri-Met, the folks who run both the busses and the light rail. It’s the great untold secret no one wants to see the light of day.

  14. Maggie – thanks for the video!

    Paul – I’m also frustrated that people cannot separate issues of “desirability” or “coolness” from those addressing “cost effectiveness”. I think people generally hate to see math analyses and few (alarmingly few) journalists are good at math, let alone economic cost benefit stuff. Unfortunate as the waste and inefficiency costs us collectively many mega-mega-megabucks, especially in the security and defense budgets where there is even less oversight than elsewhere.

    The main thing I’d like to see with these transit projects is a “subsidy per ride” measure that would show how much the service costs per ride if you take into account all expenses and revenues including the capitalization costs. This might help get people thinking in terms of alternative uses of *their* tax money.

  15. Some of these projects remind me of the irrigation products where the annual cost of salaries is recouped from nearby farmers whereas the taxpayers have to deal with the construction bonds. Then a press release is issued saying that local farmers are paying their fare share of costs.

    Ofcourse a park often benefits mostly nearby property owners and a road generally has primarily local benefits. Sometimes government intervention is such that there is no such thing as a fair market value for an item.

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