The Portland Aerial Tram started as a solution to an overcrowding problem, and it has become a civic icon.
When Oregon Health & Science University planners decided 12 years ago that they needed to expand the school's main Marquam Hill campus, which opened in 1917, there was nowhere to go but down.
“We had a real congestion problem and an access problem,” says Ann O'Connell, OHSU director of ambulatory care, who works at the Marquam Hill campus. “We wanted to stay Portland-based, but we couldn't develop anymore on the hill.”
And, although the eventual site—now the Center for Health & Healing on the South Waterfront campus—was just a little more than half a mile away at the bottom of the hill, it was not necessarily an easy or convenient fix.
So, it was decided that a split campus connected via a Swiss Alps-style tram was the way to go, but it was an uphill battle to say the least. There was neighborhood opposition and cost overruns. “There was push-back,” O'Connell says. “But it's so nondisruptive and quiet that now I don't think the neighbors are too concerned anymore.”
The $57 million project was completed (with $40 million from OHSU) in December 2006 and was made available to OHSU staff and students. On Jan. 27, 2007, the tram was opened to the public and has since been ridden almost 6 million times.
Through May, OHSU reports that the tram has been used 118,635 times each month this year (compared with 84,215 rides in 2010), with staff and students accounting for 85,338 rides; patients for 4,928; patient family members, 9,263; and the rest a mix of “courtesy” rides, commuters and tourists taking the 3,300-foot, three-minute, 22-mph voyage that costs $4 round trip. Patients, staff, OHSU students and children 6 and under ride free.
“It's a very ‘Oregonian' thing to have,” O'Connell says. “If you got on the tram instead of driving up the hill, it means you're not contributing to the parking problem.”
According to O'Connell, “Patients and visitors love the tram for reasons that are obvious and not so obvious.”
The obvious benefits are the views and the freedom from traffic and parking. The not-so-obvious benefits are the psychological lifts given by the tram attendants who give a three-minute narration during the trip up and down the hill, as well as the social aspects of doctors, nurses, patients, backpackers and others—including kids “squealing with delight”—all thrown together for the short-but-scenic ride. “It provides a positive diversion,” O'Connell says. “Patients sometimes ride the tram just to kill time.”
Driving between the two facilities and getting to and from the parking lots can take up to 30 minutes, according to O'Connell, and the situation becomes worse when road construction comes into play.
“We thought, starting out, that it would be just so darn practical,” O'Connell says. “But a whole lot of business—‘relationship business,' in particular—gets done on the tram.”
There are also savings to the school, according to O'Connell, because—if it had built another campus miles away—it would have required duplication of services, staff and equipment. “It allows us to have some cost containment,” she explains. “We don't have to have one of everything at each site. We don't need to have the same piece of technology at both sites.”
She says the tram also provides major convenience to clinical faculty who may teach and conduct research at the top of the hill and see patients at the bottom.
O'Connell notes that there haven't been any weddings on the tram that she's heard of, but it's become embedded in the city's landscape and culture.
“I have a beautiful picture in my office of OHSU at sunrise and the tram is just a tiny dot—but there it is, smack dab in the middle,” she says. “And there's tram etiquette that people pick up right away: When the other tram goes by in the opposite direction, you always wave.”
O'Connell adds that, in the winter, the tram provides a scenic view of the city's holiday lights, and in the spring, it offers views of trees and flowers in bloom. “Even on days when it's pouring rain,” O'Connell says, “there is still conversation about the view, with people saying, ‘Yep, this is Oregon.' ”