Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), one of Portland's largest employers, wants to connect its existing Marquam Hill campus with an expansion campus it wants to build in Portland's North Macadam district. Here are answers to some questions you might have about this project. Click each question listed below to see the question and its answer, or simply scroll through the list.

NO TRAM TO OHSU opposes the aerial tram project. Click below to see the content of the group's statement and a list of reasons why the group does not want this project approved or built.


What is the proposed OHSU aerial tram?

The aerial tram is a reversible aerial aerial tram most commonly used at ski resorts to move skiers from lower elevations to higher elevations on mountains. Click here to see a description of a typical reversible aerial tram from an aerial tram manufacturer.

OHSU proposes to run its aerial aerial tram over a residential street — something that very few other cities have ever attempted. New York City has an aerial aerial tram that runs between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island, but it runs primarily over the East River. Every state that has regulations that govern aerial tram development — Oregon is not one of these — confines aerial tram development to park areas and ski resorts.

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Where would it be built?

One end of the aerial tramway would be on Marquam Hill and the other in the North Macadam district. OHSU's current plan is to align the aerial tram on an east-west route and hang the cable and cars about 40 feet over SW Gibbs Street. Gibbs Street is just south of downtown Portland, between the Willamette River and Marquam Hill.

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What would the aerial tram look like?

The aerial tram has two cars which travel between two fixed terminals by overhead cables supported by two very large towers. One tower would reach at least 120 feet in height — that's about the height of a 12-story building; the other could reach as high as 180 feet in height, or the height of an 18-story building. The cable on which the cars run would be approximately 3,400 feet in length. Each car would hold as many as 50 people, according to OHSU's current plans, and would be approximately the size of a Ford Expedition Sport Utility Vehicle, the largest SUV now in production.

The towers and cables would have a very significant impact on views from Terwilliger Parkway, from homes and businesses miles to the south and north, and from across the river. The cars would be a semi-permanent feature in the viewplane, since OHSU envisions running them at frequent intervals.

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Where is North Macadam?

North Macadam is a mostly undeveloped or underdeveloped 135-acre parcel located south of downtown Portland and the Riverplace development. The district used to host a number of medium and heavy industrial uses, but now houses storage facilities and light industries. It is the last tract of land in the central city capable of large-scale development.

The district lies directly along more than a mile of Willamette River bank, which defines its eastern boundary. Sheridan Street and the Marquam Bridge run along its northern boundary, while Interstate 5 and SW Macadam Avenue border the district on the west. An unimproved area south of Hamilton Street marks its southern edge.

Click here to see a map of the area.

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Where is Marquam Hill?

Marquam Hill lies just southwest of downtown Portland, and is one of the city's highest viewpoints. OHSU, the Veterans Hospital, and the Homestead neighborhood all call Marquam Hill home. It runs down as far as SW Terwilliger Boulevard on its east side, SW Sam Jackson Park Road on the north, SW Bancroft Street on the south, and SW 12th Avenue on the west.

Click here to see a map of the area.

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Who would use it? Is it open to the public?

OHSU expects its employees to use it to travel between Marquam Hill and the expansion campus in North Macadam. The institution says that the aerial tram would be open to the public, but practically speaking, the only users will be OHSU employees. The aerial tram terminal on Marquam Hill would open up onto the 9th floor of one of OHSU's buildings; the North Macadam terminal will also be in an OHSU building. It would not provide a convenient commuting option for others.

OHSU has claimed that the aerial tram would alleviate traffic problems by allowing a significant portion of its employees from southeast and northeast Portland to commute to North Macadam, park, and take the aerial tram to Marquam Hill. This requires those employees to fight traffic into North Macadam, an area notorious for its difficult access, or to find parking outside North Macadam, switch to a streetcar that OHSU expects to run into the area, then finally take the aerial tram to the hill. When pressed, OHSU admits that this is generally impractical, and its own studies show that commuters from west of Marquam Hill would simply not use the aerial tram at all.

The actual primary use OHSU envisions for the aerial tram is to connect the two campuses during the workday so that administrators and employees who need to go to conferences can travel back and forth.

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What will it cost and who is paying for it?

OHSU projects the cost to construct the aerial tram at $12 to $14 million. It also projects maintenance and operation costs at more than $1 million each year. The North Macadam redevelopment plan currently includes $2.6 million in public funding — your tax dollars — and OHSU plans to ask the city for other funds, particularly to construct the lower aerial tram terminal in the North Macadam district.

OHSU says that it will raise the necessary funds and will not use federal funding to pay for aerial tram construction or operation.

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Are there safety concerns?

Yes, there are many:

  • OHSU plans to construct the two supporting towers in one of the areas in Portland most at risk for serious earthquakes. The consequences for those below a falling aerial tram tower, cables, or aerial tram car would be disasterous.
  • Gibbs Street is the Life Flight helicopter path to OHSU, and there is no practical way to light the entire cable length for the aerial tram, which puts the cable at risk for a collision.
  • The aerial tram cars would run on top of high-tension steel cables stretched between the two towers, which would cause injury or death should they snap during a quake or as the result of a collision. Ice, snow, and high winds also could have potentially significant impacts on aerial tram operation or safety.
  • The cables and cars traverse approximately 30 lanes of north-south traffic including I-5, Highway 43, Macadam Avenue, Corbett Avenue, Barbur Blvd. and Terwilliger Blvd. Should an accident occur, not only would those directly beneath the aerial tram suffer, so would those caught in a pileup or multiple-car accident.
  • The cars and cables will pass directly over sidewalks in a densely populated residential neighborhood. Anyone dropping or throwing something from an aerial tram car would likely cause injury or death for those on the ground. Because OHSU intends to open the aerial tram system to the public, policing this behavior would prove difficult or expensive.

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How will it benefit the city?

The aerial tram will not benefit the city at all. OHSU expects that it might serve as a tourist attraction, but at best that will be an incidental attraction in Portland, especially given that the only two points to which the aerial tram connects both lie inside a hospital and research facility.

There are, in fact, significant costs to the city, both in terms of money to finance parts of the project, and in terms of how the aerial tram will affect Portland's reputation for liveability, its historic district program, the views from Terwilliger Parkway — already a tourist attraction in its own right — and in the goodwill of a significant number of its residents. It could potentially reduce city property tax revenue from residences whose property values drop as a result of aerial tram construction and operation. It could also severely discourage infill development in Portland, which is the cornerstone for Portland's plan to stay within its urban growth boundary. After all, if this project can get built within a Portland National Historic District, what will stop other developments that could harm other neighborhoods with fewer legal protections?

Some members of the city government believe that the aerial tram will help Portland to kick-start development in the North Macadam district. The city has struggled for more than two years to craft a development plan that will meet the needs of landowners in the North Macadam district, who want an economically feasible set of development guidelines. The city must also balance this need against the interests of others in the area who want certain design standards, open space guarantees, and environmental protections put in place.

The city hopes that OHSU decides to locate in North Macadam as its “anchor tenant,” but OHSU says it will only build in North Macadam if it can have the aerial tram. OHSU can benefit the city by being in North Macadam and can develop there without the aerial tram.

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Aren't there other alternatives to an aerial tram?

The first question to ask is whether OHSU needs any transportation alternative at all for most of what it needs to get done. The institution claims that it needs the ability to quickly and conveniently move people between its facilities so that they can attend conferences, medical conventions, and similar events. But OHSU also plans to locate most of its administrative, not patient treatment or hospital, facilities in North Macadam. OHSU should first plan to locate those departments that need to be in constant contact together, in the same or adjacent facilities.

Even if OHSU can convincingly demonstrate that this option would not be practical, it has not seriously investigated whether it can expand its use of video conferencing, e-mail, telephone, and other types of communication to meet its needs. The Marquam Hill campus is very thoroughly wired and should meet most communication needs much more cheaply and practically with electronic communication.

Furthermore, should OHSU still demonstrate a need for face-to-face conferences, it has not demonstrated that an aerial tram system capable of carrying fully one-third of its employee population each day would be necessary.

Finally, OHSU can easily connect its Marquam Hill and North Macadam campuses with a shuttle bus service. Buses would provide fast and convenient transportation between the two facilities, and would take OHSU employees door-to-door, between and within the campuses. The aerial tram would only go from one point on Marquam Hill to one point in North Macadam. Employees will still need a shuttle service to move people from place to place within each campus. Buses can run on existing roads without the aerial tram's heavy up-front infrastructure costs and expensive operation costs.

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How will the aerial tram benefit the Corbett-Terwilliger Lair Hill or Homestead neighborhoods?

It will not. In its presentations, OHSU has barely bothered even to pretend that there might be imaginable benefits for those living under or within view of the aerial tram. For neighborhood residents, there are no benefits, just burdens. These include:

  • A loss of privacy. Those who use the aerial tram can look from 40 feet in the air into neighborhood windows, backyards, decks, and other areas that homeowners reasonably expect to be private spaces.
  • Safety issues. Any consequences from accidents, natural disasters, careless or malicious behavior in aerial tram cars, or similar incidents will fall squarely on neighborhood residents.
  • Reduced property values. In the Homestead neighborhood, much of a home's value depends on its view. The aerial tram system will significantly impede that view, which will lower the values of those homes. For those under or immediately surrounding the aerial tram alignment, property values will inevitably drop as prospective buyers realize the consequences of living under or near an unsightly and potentially dangerous aerial tram system.

OHSU has tried to sway some residents in these neighborhoods with a promise of better transportation connections to North Macadam, including a pedestrian bridge across I-5, but the institution is in no position to promise this, nor do traffic improvements or circulation studies in south Portland have anything to do with OHSU's aerial tram system. Should the city develop North Macadam, with or without OHSU, the neighborhoods will get these benefits regardless.

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What about Ballot Measure 7 -- will OHSU or the city have to pay citizens for the loss of property values due to diminished views or other impacts associated with the aerial tram?

Measure 7 is currently on hold, but if it goes into effect it could require payments to affected property owners if their property values diminish because of legislative action that approves the aerial tram. The Portland City Council will need to approve the aerial tram, so its actions could lead to lawsuits from property owners under Measure 7. In that event, it will be the city of Portland that must pay any claims, not OHSU, and it will pay those claims with your tax dollars.

The current plan is for the aerial tram project to come before the City Council as part of a larger development plan for OHSU within the next 12 to 15 months, but OHSU plans to force the issue of required permits and guarantees that permit it to go ahead with aerial tram development by the spring of 2001.

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What is the process for approving the aerial tram? How soon could it happen?

City departments, including the Portland Development Commission and the Portland Design Commission, must determine which criteria they will use to review, approve, and issue a permit to build the aerial tram. This process will also involve the Bureau of Planning, the Portland departments of Transportation and Parks, and others. OHSU wants assurances from the city by the spring of 2001 that it can build the aerial tram. The Bureau of Planning wants to study the aerial tram as part of the Marquam Hill Plan District, and will begin its work in January 2001.

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Why does OHSU want to build in North Macadam?

OHSU wants to expand its facilities and grow by more than 73 percent in the next 30 years. Its stated goal is to be a Top 20 educational and research institution. To do so, it wants to upgrade and expand its present facilities on Marquam Hill and add an expansion campus in North Macadam. OHSU would use the North Macadam expansion for administrative offices, not for patient treatment or hospital facilities.

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What can I do to help if I want to oppose the aerial tram?

Become informed. Lobby your friends, neighbors, the mayor, and city commissioners. Attend neighborhood board meetings, public hearings, and similar events. Get the word out. Let us know you are interested and we will put you to work. We have a network of dedicated and talented volunteers, but can always use more help. Click here to see ways you can get involved.

Click here for a calendar of current and upcoming events.

We will probably also need to raise money to purchase planning and legal assistance to fight this project. OHSU has lots of money, friends in high places, hired-gun lawyers (including Ball Janik, the developer's ally), loads of influence and is a large Portland and Oregon employer. In addition, landowners with interests in North Macadam and connections to the city's decisionmakers have a huge interest in developing the parcel, and hope that OHSU will help them to jump-start the development. Check back here for more information about how you can donate to the cause — we'll have a method in place shortly.

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As an initial matter, the NO TRAM TO OHSU group does not oppose OHSU, nor does it oppose OHSU's plans to expand to the North Macadam District. OHSU is a valuable institution and is important to our region. The institution has, however, latched on to a bad idea for moving people from one place to another and is pursuing that idea with blinkered determination. NO TRAM TO OHSU has many reasons for its opposition to the project. Here are the most obvious:

OHSU has not justified the need for the aerial tram. OHSU wants a “rapid and convenient” connection between Marquam Hill and its proposed expansion campus in North Macadam. Shuttle buses will take 10 to 15 minutes round trip and provide door to door service; the aerial tram will take between two and five minutes, but only goes from one point to one point. Even with the aerial tram, OHSU employees will still need to get from one place on Marquam Hill (or in North Macadam) to another, so they will need to factor that time into the total travel time.

Moreover, OHSU has not shown that its anticipated ridership would justify the aerial tram's construction and operation. How many people would really need or use an aerial tram connection, apart from the initial novelty? Is OHSU so inefficient at planning its facilities that it would need to move one-third of its working population back and forth each day? What about other alternatives, such as video conferencing, e-mail, and other electronic communications?

Measured against its impact on our neighborhood (and city), and given the cost of construction and operation, the aerial tram is a foolish and expensive indulgence that OHSU simply cannot justify. OHSU can expand into North Macadam without the aerial tram.

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The aerial tram is not an appropriate transportation alternative. There are no benefits for the Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill and Homestead neighborhoods, only burdens. This proposal is unique: where else in the United States is there an inner-city “ski resort” transportation system that slices through neighborhoods and travels over residents' houses, sidewalks and streets? The answer is: nowhere else. OHSU will argue that the impact to these neighborhoods will be minimal. However, nearly everyone you ask, whether affiliated with OHSU, the city, your local neighborhood or even the aerial tram manufacturer, will tell you that they would not want to live under it or have it travel over their streetscape.

Why would we?

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The aerial tram is not compatible with a National Historic District. The North Corbett neighborhood is part of the South Portland National Historic District. The aerial tram is not compatible with the historic character of that neighborhood. Minor changes to the exteriors of homes in the historic district now require notice and Planning Bureau approval. How can the aerial tram pass muster under the historic designation?

It can't. The city, therefore, will have to ignore or alter the scope of this designation in order to approve the project. This sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of Portland.

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The aerial tram destroys the Gibbs Street View Corridor. Gibbs Street is one of a number of view corridors in Southwest Portland. The views from OHSU and Terwilliger Boulevard are among the highest-rated views in the entire city of Portland. The passage of the aerial tram cars over and above Gibbs Street, along with the two 180' to 200' towers and connecting cables that will dominate the right of way, will destroy this view corridor.

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The aerial tram will not significantly reduce Marquam Hill traffic. OHSU's planned expansion into North Macadam will not reduce automobile traffic on the hill. If anything, it will increase it. OHSU projects a doubling of traffic on Terwilliger Boulevard in the next 30 years, solely because of its own expansion. The institution has not even studied whether the aerial tram will reduce the resulting traffic problems. OHSU's chief planner admits when pressed that the aerial tram is not a means to reduce traffic, but merely a connection between two facilities. Under OHSU's master plan, there will be more OHSU employees commuting to the central city — 73 percent more based on its projections — over the next 30 years. This means more traffic, whether on the hill or in North Macadam. Even if OHSU employees fully utilize the aerial tram in accordance with OHSU's most optimistic projections, they still face a commuting nightmare to get to either terminal. According to OHSU's own studies, those traveling from the west will simply not bother with the aerial tram.

How will this reduce automobile traffic in South Portland?

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The aerial tram takes public right of way for a private use. Why does OHSU, a semi-private entity, get to take public air space and right of way, for a private transportation system? This is not the street car going along a public right of way for public use. It is a private transportation system to benefit one private user. The aerial tram is in some ways like a skybridge: a means to connect two buildings to move people back and forth between them. If OHSU suggests that the aerial tram will be open to the public, ask them who, realistically, will ride an aerial tram from North Macadam to its facility on the hill. The only “public” it will serve are those associated with OHSU. There is no at-large public benefit.

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We can stop this project if we get the word out and let all of Portland know about this proposal! Tell your friends and neighbors. Talk to others outside the immediate neighborhood. Send them to this site, or have them contact NO TRAM TO OHSU. Click here to see contact information or to send e-mail to the group.

We need citywide opposition to defeat this plan. People who live elsewhere in the city have a stake in opposing this development, but we must engage them in the debate.

If you have comments, suggestions for additional material to include on this site, or other input, please contact the webmaster at webmaster@noaerial tram.org

Last updated January 19, 2001