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Saturday, January 27, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Portland tram takes off

Seattle Times staff reporter

PORTLAND -- At lunchtime at the hilltop campus of Oregon Health & Science University, workers making a quick break line up along an open-air platform. In a few minutes, their ride arrives -- an aerial bus that glides toward the Willamette River like a giant silver bubble.

This is the latest addition to Portland's public transportation system, a $57 million tram that travels some 3,300 feet. It rides above a fragmented landscape of forests, highways, century-old homes and condo complexes -- one of which sports a rooftop advertising banner touting the last unit for sale. On clear days, the ride also features sweeping vistas of Mount Hood and -- if you're lucky -- a couple of bald eagles circling above the guide cables.

"This is going to be iconic to Portland," said Homer Williams, a city developer. "This is what people will be talking about."

The tram was conceived by the university -- Portland's largest employer, with a crowded hilltop complex of hospitals, classrooms and research buildings where nearly 12,000 people work. University officials wanted to expand beyond the hilltop confines to a strip of vacated industrial acreage along the Willamette riverfront. They figured a bus would be too slow a shuttle connection, with up to 30 minutes of travel times during rush hour. After reviewing options, they settled on the tram. It was completed last fall, and the grand opening is this weekend, with free rides for the public.

Although the tram primarily will carry university employees and patients, it already has helped spur a much broader $1 billion development of the riverfront district spread across 130 acres south of downtown. The area languished for years as a series of empty industrial sites, including a former shipyard and lumberyard.

"There were multiple owners, and everyone had their own agenda," said Julie Rawls, a spokeswoman for the Portland Development Commission. "It was hard to pull everyone together on a comprehensive plan, and the tram was the linchpin to get that done."

The new district includes the university's Center for Health & Healing, which rises 16 stories next to the tram's launch pad, and high-rise condominiums. The hope is for a balance of workplaces and residences, with ample public transit systems that include a streetcar to shuttle passengers downtown. Currently, there are about 1,000 jobs and 1,000 residential units in the new district. Planners hope 10,000 jobs and 5,000 condominium units develop during the next 15 to 20 years, including some housing set aside for low-income residents.

Every day but Sunday

The tram now offers six-days-a-week service to the new district, with two cars that take off about every five minutes, climbing about 500 feet. Each car can hold up to 78 people. The cars usually are far less crowded, with room available to stash bicycles.

The first few months of operation -- open only to OHSU employees -- have been smooth, with only a few brief stalls on the cable lines. But the tram's early history has included plenty of controversy.

One big issue was money.

The tram was financed with a mix of university and city funding, and construction costs more than tripled from early estimates in 2002. City officials feared further cost overruns as they labored under tight timelines to prepare for the installation of the tram by a Swiss firm, Doppelmayr CTEC.

"This was too important to fail," said Rob Barnard, who worked seven-day weeks as the tram's project manager. "Everyone went the extra mile to try to make this right."

Opposition from start

From early on, there was strong concern voiced by some who live below the tram route and didn't want a constant flow of commuters who, at the cable's lowest point, would ride in cars hanging about 70 feet over the houses.

City officials pledged to make neighborhood improvements, including streetlights and an $8 million pedestrian walkway so residents could walk over Interstate 5 and explore the new neighborhood, or catch the streetcar to downtown.

Now that the tram is operating, those early opponents are trying to adjust.

"It's difficult to keep that level of animosity up," said Larry Beck, an attorney whose house on Gibbs Street lies directly underneath the tram. "Now, there is more of an air of resignation, that we're stuck with the thing."

Art Pearce, a Portland city official, is convinced that tram passengers will be drawn to the tram views -- not voyeurism.

But as Beck and his neighbors have ridden the tram, they have noted which lighted windows can be peeked into at night, and what backyard patio gathering might draw tram passengers' eyes.

Many of the houses have skylights, which add other possible viewpoints.

"I can sit in my bathroom, and see the tram go by," Gibbs Street resident Craig Rowland said. "It's a little disconcerting. There are privacy issues here."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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