In today’s Oregonian both columnist Steve Duin and reporter Ryan Frank cover the tram between OHSU and South Waterfront, particularly the threefold increase in cost from the original $15 million estimate to the $45 million cost today.
There is a lot of carping going on, and much of it deservedly so. But I think it’s important we delineate things here.
One issue is the ignorance and possible deception that happened, however unwittingly, with the original $15 million estimate. Obviously that was a ridiculous figure from the start. I don’t blame people for being very upset and feeling taken advantage of. That the city and OHSU and the developers are arguing over who should cover the costs is completely understandable.
But another issue altogether is whether we want the tram. And the answer to that is still, at least in my view, decidedly yes.
Lets forget for a moment how the cost estimates have ballooned and go back a couple years ago to the original issue of how the tram would act as a lynchpin for the South Waterfront development, which will bring thousands of jobs and residents to a blighted stretch of prime riverfront.
If the tram cost had been estimated at $45 million back then, I wouldn’t have hesitated to support it. If it’s good for the city, it’s good for the city. And if South Waterfront does indeed become the high-density neighborhood and the home of a revitalized world-class OHSU campus, then not only would $45 million be worth it, but $90 would be too.
This controversy is similar in many ways to Boston's "Big Dig", which also saw several delays and frustratingly huge cost increases. People there, and even nationwide to an extent, ridiculed city leaders for embarking on such a boondoggle. But you know what? Today Boston is better for the tunnels they built there. That doesn't mean people were wrong to complain about the rising costs and delays. What I'm getting at is it's one thing to complain about a process that experiences problems. It's another to advocate killing a project people agreed should happen.
I think what this comes down to is that cities don't embark upon massive transportation projects quite as often as they used to in the Robert Moses era. Clearly Portland, like Boston before it, needed to learn some lessons the hard way about what it takes to deliver such a project with acceptable efficiency. Again, though, that's a conversation about process, not about the validity of the product.
Duin suggests, as others have, that it’s time to “pull the plug” on the tram. Of course I disagree vehemently and unequivocally. It’s certainly necessary that we investigate the unfortunate process by which the tram’s cost estimates tripled. But if we want the tram then we want the tram. I still can’t wait to go for a ride.