Gondola Fever: What Seattle Can Learn From The Portland Aerial Tram

Talk of gondolas is sweeping the region. Or, at the very least, making a few headlines.

What choices might the commuters of Kirkland and Seattle someday enjoy when it comes to getting from point A to point B? If a handful of movers and shakers have their way, the options might include gondolas.

As Alexa Vaughn noted in the Seattle Times Feb. 23, in Kirkland “City Council members, the city manager and the mayor have started exploring the addition of air gondolas into its public-transit mix.” Kirkland even organized a transportation symposium at Google’s campus, where Steven Dale of Creative Urban Projects, which, according to the Times, is studying cable-car projects “worldwide,” talked extensively about the potential of cable car transportation. “It’s the fastest-growing transit technology in the world at this moment,” Dale reportedly told those in attendance.

In Seattle, some have the gondola bug as well. On Tuesday, the family behind Seattle’s Great Wheel, the Griffiths, unveiled aspirations and drawings for a gondola connecting the Convention Center to the waterfront, eying a 2016 opening, once the viaduct comes down. As Lynn Thompson of the Seattle Times reported yesterday afternoon, the proposed gondola line - which was discussed by the Great Wheel’s Kyle Griffith at an afternoon press conference - would be privately financed and also feature a stop at the Pike Place Market. Thompson reports that the Griffiths’ plan has won over Peter Steinbrueck as a supporter, and the family is reportedly working with the city on permitting issues as we speak.

Meanwhile, some on Capitol Hill have their own gondola hopes, as Mike Lindbloom noted Feb. 16 for the Seattle Times. Lindbloom reports that “The Capitol Hill gondola is championed by Matt Roewe, of VIA Architecture, and Matt Gangemi, better known among transit wonks as Matt the Engineer.” The idea is to create a better east-west route and an alternative to the Route 8 bus, according to the Times.

What might Seattle’s gondola future hold? While there are obvious differences, Portland built a gondola - known in PDX as the Portland Aerial Tram - back in 2007, connecting the Oregon Health and Science University hospital atop Marquam Hill with Portland’s south waterfront, which is now home to OHSU’s Center for Health and Healing. Today Portland’s tram is used primarily by those shuttling between the two OHSU campuses, though it also serves tourists and as a connection to Portland’s streetcar infrastructure.

Diane Dulken, a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, says the Portland Aerial Tram has been an “iconic addition” to the city’s skyline. She also notes some of the tram’s milestones so far, including spurring nearly $2 billion in investment along Portland’s south river waterfront, which she says was basically vacant prior to the tram’s arrival. “This tram was a big catalyst for development,” Dulken says.

Having just passed its 10 millionth rider mark, according to Dulken, Portland’s tram has eliminated the need for 2 million vehicle miles per year, and saved of about 93 thousand gallons of gas and 1000 tons of green house gases annually since it opened. During a recent stow storm in Portland, Dulken says the tram served as a part of the city’s critical transportation network, getting people up and down an otherwise impassable hill.

That’s not to say Portland’s foray into gondola transportation has been all roses. Rich Eisenhauer, the City of Portland’s operations manager for the aerial tram, points to some of the lessons Seattle can learn from its gondola-equipped neighbor to the south. While Portland’s tram was primarily paid for by OHSU, with local improvement district taxes on property owners making up the difference, cost overruns during the aerial tram’s construction were nothing to scoff at. Originally it was estimated Portland could build a tram for $15 million. By the time things were said and done, however, Eisenhauer says the price tag was $57 million. He attributes most of the overruns to engineering difficulties and the fact that Portland’s custom-designed towers and cable cars “really drove up the cost.”

“I think the public was surprised,” says Eisenhauer of the cost overruns. “Every couple weeks [the price] would go up.”

Today, Eisenhauer says OHSU pays for 85 percent of operation costs, while the City of Portland pays 15 percent - which is covered in its entirety by the $4 aerial tram fare.

The money wasn’t the only area where the Portland Aerial Tram raised concerns. Specifically, when it launched many Portland residents complained that the gondola - and the views it provided passengers - invaded their privacy, or ruined their neighborhood’s character. One local homeowner, in true Portland fashion, emblazoned his roof with a message for riders reading: “FUCK THE TRAM.” In response to the outcry, the Portland Aerial Tram installed frosted windows on cable cars and a few other tweaks to limit how much riders could see.

According to Eisenhauer, the privacy uproar was “short lived,” and these days the City doesn’t hear any complaints on the matter. “I think we’re past it,” he says of the dust-up.

When it comes to specific neighborhood concerns, Eisenhauer says trade-offs were used to help win skeptics over. For instance, he says a pedestrian bridge connecting a neighborhood below the tram that was previously landlocked by Interstate 5 to the south waterfront has improved life there, and helped to mitigate some of the tensions.

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