Portland's Once Contraversial Aerial Tram Celebrates a Decade in Operation
Portland's Aerial Tram Turns 10
It’s hard to believe, but the most unique addition thus far to Portland’s 21st-century skyline is already celebrating a decade in operation.
We’re talking here about the Portland Aerial Tram, which marked its 10-year anniversary this January. The sleek contraption, which debuted in 2007 amid not a little controversy, connects the South Waterfront along the Willamette River with the top of Marquam Hill.
During a four-minute ride, the two tramcars ferry passengers some 3,300 linear feet and 500 vertical feet between Oregon Health and Science University’s Center for Health and Healing and the university’s main Marquam Hill campus — and throws some dazzling Portland Basin and Cascade Range views into the bargain.
On the occasion of the tram’s anniversary, U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer said, “The Portland Aerial Tram is the quintessential example of the private and public sector working together to build a vibrant, livable community.”
The tram represented a high-profile collaboration between the City of Portland and OHSU, the city’s biggest employer. Looking to expand and faced with the geographical constraints of its congested hilltop perch — only a pair of two-lane roads access Marquam Hill from downtown, and the OHSU campus is surrounded by residential neighborhoods — the university purchased land along the riverfront in what was then known as the North Macadam district. The issue was figuring out how to efficiently connect the two campuses.
Ultimately, the tram solution prevailed, and the city selected a designer via an international competition launched at the start of 2003. The winning applicant was the Zurich- and L.A.-based firm Angelil/Graham/Pfenniger/Scholl. Construction demanded quite the engineering feat, not the least of which was that the tramcars and cables — together weighing about a million pounds — would not be anchored to bedrock at the upper terminal but, rather, to a tower.
From the sleek tramcars manufactured by the Swiss company Gangloff Cabins to that hilltop tower, the visual effect of the Aerial Tram was meant to be “iconic,” as the project manager Art Pearce noted in a short documentary about the endeavor. “It had to be a piece of sculpture,” said Vera Katz, mayor of Portland, when the tram effort was initiated.
The tram’s a smooth ride, but its installation wasn’t. Many residents in the neighborhood below its track weren’t happy about the radical change to their local sky way. And the projected budget of $15.5 million proved woefully undershot: The ultimate cost was $57 million, $40 million of which OHSU contributed.
Ten years in, it’s clear that the Portland Aerial Tram proved fundamental to transforming the South Waterfront, now one of the city’s most exciting and fast-developing districts. Besides OHSU staff and students, many bicyclists and pedestrians take advantage of the tram to quickly and efficiently commute between the riverfront and the West Hills.
The tram’s made some 16 million trips since opening, executing an average of 9,500 trips on any given weekday. According to The Oregonian, the 2.1 million who hitched a tram ride in 2016 represented an impressive 13 percent increase over the previous year.
A Bit of Tram Trivia
The tram stations get their names from the native Tualatin language: The lower one is Chamanchal, “on the river,” and the upper one Chemeffu, “on the mountain.” Meanwhile, the tramcars, called Jean and Walt, honor a pair of pioneering individuals: Jean Richardson, the first woman to graduate from Oregon State University’s engineering program, and Walt Reynolds, OHSU’s first African-American graduate. (In 2007, the two of them rode the tram cabins named after them.)
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