Thursday, October 1, 2009

Who Cares About Portland?

One thing that readers are bound to notice is that I have an unusually keen interest in the city of Portland. Aside from being the micro brewery capital of the world, Portland is also regarded as the public transit Mecca of America. No North American city has experimented as extensively as Portland with various forms of transit. Portland has an extensive fleet of buses, light rail trains, and streetcars. In addition to this, Portland has also constructed an aerial tram, which descends on a system of cables from the main campus of the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) main campus, to the south waterfront campus. This provides an excellent example of the mentality shared by modern urban planners.

The initial cost estimate for the 1 km tram was $15.5 million dollars. This estimate turned out to be unrealistic, and the cost ballooned to $57 million dollars. The operating cost estimate of $915,000 per year was also far off the mark, as the actual cost is $1.7 million dollars. Any impartial auditor would call this a massive failure. This is especially true when considering that there was already a 3.1 km bus route between the two campuses. Given that the capital cost of a bus is less than 1/100th of the cost of the tram, one would expect urban planners to conclude that the tram was an abysmal failure. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

William Fulton, primary author of the California Planning and Development report curiously labelled the tram a success. Despite the costs, he claims that the tram is responsible for keeping the largest employer, OHSU, in town. Fulton believes that "sometimes you just have to build stuff and see what happens." This is the kind of reckless urban planning that has lead to a decay of most American cities. The idea that money is never an obstacle has lead to a situation where no matter how much money municipalities receive, they are in a state of perpetual budget crisis. Portland, more than any other American city, exhibits this ethos. This is why Portland is important. Despite their reckless transportation policies, Portland has become the model that cities across North America (including Toronto) are attempting to emulate. Your city planners care about Portland, and so should you.

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