The Portland Aerial Tram, opened in January 2007, is one of only a handful of urban commuter lifts in the United States. It connects the campus of the Oregon Health & Science University with Portland’s up-and-coming South Waterfront neighborhood. The tram was built for $57 million during Doppelmayr-Garaventa’s North American golden years when they completed three projects worth $150 million in less than two years (the others being Jackson Hole’s new tram and the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.) The Portland tram now carries more than 3,300 passengers a day, far exceeding initial projections.
The tram only rises 496 feet but it crosses a light rail line, eight lanes of Interstate 5 and eleven other roads. The bottom terminal houses the 600 HP drive motor and tram offices while the 80,000 lb. counterweight sits underneath the top station. Slope length is only 3,437 feet, allowing quick three-minute trips at 2000 feet per minute or 7 m/s. This achieves a capacity of 1,014 passengers per hour, per direction.
Why did a tram one quarter of the size of Jackson Hole’s cost $25 million more? Two words: politics and aesthetics. Designers wanted the system to be unique to Portland and aesthetically pleasing. The city held an international design competition and selected AGPS Architecture of Zurich to design the terminals, tower and cabins. The 197-foot tower is entirely covered in steel panels and lit up in colors at night. Gangloff custom-designed the tram’s two 78-passenger cabins to look like flying reflective bubbles. The top station is perhaps the most complex piece of the project, sitting 140-feet above ground and supported by angled columns.
The tram is owned by the City of Portland and operated by Doppelmayr USA through a long-term contract. Its annual maintenance and operations budget is a staggering $1.7 million. Cars operate continuously 16 hours per day on weekdays with limited hours on weekends. A round-trip ride costs $4.50. The tram carried its ten millionth passenger in January 2014 and is widely considered a success despite its high cost.
In addition, the high cost was also due to lawsuits from fellow neighbors who fought left and right to kill the project before the project broke ground.
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