One of Portland's most prominent landmarks, Marquam Hill also presents one of its most stubborn transportation challenges. Buses, ambulances and thousands of cars crawl up it on narrow roads each day to reach the state's most significant concentration of clinics, hospitals and medical research facilities.
Transit access is critical to future of working, living, learning and accessing medical care on Marquam Hill. But as the Southwest Corridor Plan steering committee debates a future high capacity transit line to connect Portland and Tualatin, how to serve Marquam Hill is one of the stickiest questions they must confront.
A light rail tunnel beneath the hill would provide the most direct access to the hill's clinics, hospitals and homes. But is it worth the extra cost over light rail or bus rapid transit on SW Barbur Boulevard or Naito Parkway, if those options could use elevators or escaltors to connect riders to the top of the hill?
It's a billion-dollar question. There's no easy answer.
Here are 12 numbers that define what's at stake for Marquam Hill, and how we got here.
This is when it all began. In 1919, the University of Oregon Medical School – now Oregon Health and Science University – relocated from downtown Portland to the top of Marquam Hill. The original 20 acres were donated by the Oregon Willamette Railway and Navigation Company, which had somewhat improbably planned to build a railyard and depot atop the hill – legend has it that some distant rail executive bought the rights without ever seeing the land.
The land clearly wasn't good for a railyard, but many doubted it would work as a hospital/medical school, either. The gift was derided as "Mackenzie's Folly," referring to the then-dean of the school. Many Portlanders decried the campus as too far from downtown and too difficult to reach via winding, steep roads. But the school hung on, and five years later, another 88 acres were donated by the Sam Jackson family, publishers of the Oregon Journal newspaper.
The location isn't so far from downtown anymore. But those same, 2-lane winding roads are the primary way most people access the hill today. And there are a lot more people using them than there were nearly a century ago. "The roads weren't built for anything like this traffic," said John Landolfe, OHSU transportation options coordinator. "That's why we got this land to begin with."
The approximate number of people who travel up Marquam Hill each weekday, according to OHSU staff. This includes employees, students, patients and visitors at OHSU, the Veterans Affairs and Shriners hospitals and other clinics. "People often refer to Marquam Hill as just OHSU, but there are three large organizations here," said Brian Newman, a former Metro councilor and now the university's associate vice president of campus planning, development and real estate.
The approximate percentage of OHSU employees that arrive by means other than driving alone – including transit, carpooling, bicycling and walking. This rate – much higher than most of the city's employers – is driven in part by a severe shortage of employee parking spots on the hill. Some of OHSU's eight parking garages and seven lots on the hill have as much as an 8-year waiting list, and the average monthly single-driver parking fee is $128. Most patients and their visitors, however, arrive by car; parking for them is free.
The only TriMet bus line that provides all-day service to Marquam Hill. The 8-Jackson Park/NE 15th starts in Northeast Portland's Woodlawn neighborhood and ends at OHSU, and runs from 5 a.m. to midnight. Five other lines provide rush-hour connections to Beaverton, Tigard and Burlingame, Goose Hollow and Southeast/Northeast Portland. Combined, these buses serve approximately 4,500 riders a day, most of them on the 8.
All of the buses face the same problems: getting stuck in the exact same traffic that often snarls the hill's primary road accesses: Terwilliger Drive, Sam Jackson Park Road and Campus Drive. Even worse: an occasional storm that can block traffic altogether because of falling trees or slick ice.
On a recent sunny Thursday afternoon, the 8 bus began to fill quickly once it reached the VA Hospital, reaching near capacity by the time it rounded the OHSU hospitals and clinics.
As traffic on Terwilliger slowed to a crawl into downtown, so did the bus. But rider Amy Werner, an OHSU librarian, said she'd seen much worse. Werner commutes from Vancouver; she drives each day to Delta Park and takes transit from there. "If it's like this at the top of the hill, I get off and walk," Werner said. "If I walk fast enough, I can make it to the MAX."
OHSU provides steep discounts to employees for TriMet and C-Tran passes, and provides a park and ride facility at the foot of the hill. "For us transit is absolutely essential," Newman said. "We have to have it or we couldn't operate."
The number of people who can fit onto each of the Portland Aerial Tram's two cabins as they rise silently and quickly from the South Waterfront district to Marquam Hill. During rush hour, the tram often runs at capacity, heightening the need to find other ways to access the hill via transit. OHSU employees can ride the tram for free; about 7,000 people use it to reach the hill every day.
The percentage of OHSU's 116-acre Marquam Hill campus that is unbuildable due to slopes or environmental considerations. Most of the buildable land is now filled-in. The university's long-range plan envisions needing to relocate much of its academic and research work to other campuses to free up new space to expand hospitals and clinics on the hill.
The number of acres of OHSU's growing Schnitzer Campus, on the Willamette waterfront between Tilikum Crossing and downtown Portland. Unlike the campus on the hill, these acres are flat and already have great transit and bicycle access, with more coming once the Orange Line MAX opens in September.
Though only two buildings have opened so far on the Schnitzer Campus – the gleaming Collaborative Life Sciences Building and the Skourtes Tower, home to OHSU's School of Dentistry – the university envisions moving much of its research and academic functions to this campus. A 20-year facilities plan adopted in 2010 sets a target of building one new building every five years on the campus, with buildout expected to be complete in 20 to 30 years. Another 7-acre campus a quarter-mile south in the South Waterfront district is expected to host two additional buildings over that timeframe: a new central administration tower and possibly a new long-term care facility.
OHSU officials caution against thinking they're leaving the hill, though; as noted above, they're still planning big expansions of medical services on the hill, as is the VA. But with more functions moving off the hill – many of them the kind that generate the most frequent and regular trips – the question of balancing transit service between several campuses adds another dimension to the question of where to route a potential light rail or bus rapid transit line in the Southwest Corridor.
The approximate number of residents in the Homestead neighborhood, which includes all of Marquam Hill. About two-thirds of the residents are renters – many students at OHSU, said neighborhood association president Ed Fischer. The neighborhood's top transportation concerns, Fischer says: heavy auto traffic on narrow streets, and insufficient sidewalks. These concerns were among the top issues highlighted in the city of Portland's 2003 Marquam Hill Plan, which includes numerous recommendations to reduce traffic and other impacts on the neighborhood from OHSU and other institutions on the hill. The neighborhood is watching the Southwest Corridor Plan somewhat warily, concerned that even a tunnel with direct transit service will do little to reduce auto traffic on the hill.
Any new high capacity transit in the Southwest Corridor is expected to result in a lot of new transit trips – somewhere in the vicinity of 17,000 daily riders, according to the most recent transportation models. But how many additional new riders would be attracted specifically by a light rail tunnel instead of a light rail route on Naito or Barbur? That's what this number represents. Call it the "tunnel bump": 1,200 additional people going to work, school or appointments by transit – all around the region.
Altogether, a light rail tunnel is expected to increase transit ridership to Marquam Hill by 12 percent over a light rail line that would use Naito Parkway in South Portland. Planners are currently developing revised estimates for a Barbur Boulevard light rail line.
The approximate number of minutes a Marquam Hill tunnel would shave from the total transit travel time between downtown Portland and downtown Tualatin, compared to a Naito light rail alignment. For a Barbur light rail alignment, the savings are smaller – only about 1.3 minutes each way. The savings largely come from a shorter route through the tunnel and the ability to travel faster. It's a small difference each day, but over a week of daily commuting, that could save transit riders a total of 21 minutes, or around 18 hours a year.
This is the rough projection for what a 2.4-mile light rail tunnel below Marquam Hill and Hillsdale would add to the total cost of the Southwest Corridor Plan's high capacity transit line. Without the tunnel, current estimates for a light rail alignment from Portland to Tualatin are between $1.9 billion and $2.4 billion. (A bus rapid transit line, which wouldn't use a tunnel, is estimated to cost between $750 million and $1.2 billion.) Those estimates include costs such as rebuilding aging bridges on Barbur and improving walking and bicycling facilities along any potential route.
Planners note, however, that a potential tunnel's cost could actually rise sharply; tunnel projects of similar scale have often gone as much as 80 percent over budget. And detailed feasibility studies – including geological and seismic assessments – haven't yet been undertaken.
The billion-dollar question
It's clear serving OHSU is a must for a future light rail or bus rapid transit line on Southwest Corridor's high capacity transit line.
"As we grow, it's essential that we continue to have excellent [transit] service," Newman said. "That doesn't necessarily mean a tunnel, but it does mean that the project needs to serve Marquam Hill and South Waterfront."
But is it worth around $1 billion – and possibly more – to provide more direct access to one of the region's major employment and medical destinations, or would access via elevators or escalators to Marquam Hill from a surface station on Barbur or Naito be good enough?
That's the billion-dollar question. In July, the Southwest Corridor steering committee will decide whether to keep exploring it through a detailed, expensive federal environmental review.
Learn more about the Southwest Corridor Plan
An earlier version of this story inaccurately described OHSU's future development plans. OHSU does not plan to expand OHSU Hospital in the next 10 years, and is not planning to build a new patient building on Marquam Hill with 448 beds in the next 20 years. This version has been corrected.