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The Right Note: Portland on the Potomac

Mark KellyThe Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Upon first hearing that some wanted to run gondolas across the Potomac between Rosslyn and Georgetown, my first thought was to dismiss it out-of-hand. But when the backers commissioned an initial $215,000 feasibility study back in April, the project landed on my radar.

The long running battle over the Arlington streetcar seems like a distant memory. One thing I do remember is that streetcar proponents always cited Portland as an example of why we should implement the system in Arlington.

Never mind the fact that Portland’s streetcar construction, expansion and ongoing operations consistently cost more than projected when presented to the taxpayers. Auditors have raised questions about costs, ridership numbers and transparency in general. And of course nearly every city has had similar problems with their streetcar lines: Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte, Virginia Beach, Milwaukee, etc.

The first public meeting was held on the proposed gondola project in July. The meeting brought out many concerns from the public. Is there a need? Who will pay? Where will the stations be located? What will the connections be to Metro? Is it much faster than walking over the bridge?

As I reviewed the public meeting presentation, I was not surprised to learn that one of two city gondola projects currently operating in the U.S. was in Portland.

What happened when Portland constructed a gondola? According to news reports, the Portland Aerial Tram construction cost of $57 million was nearly four times the initial estimate of $15 million. Operating costs are nearly twice the original projections. And the fee charged to paying customers ended up coming in closer to three times the initial estimate as well.

The problems do not seem to stop Portland residents from coming back for more taxes and spending. In May, Portland voters approved a 10 cent per gallon gas tax to put toward transportation improvements. The Portland gas tax is projected to raise $64 million over the next four years. Here’s a guess, the revenue projection won’t hit the mark. Savvy consumers, particularly the 48.4% of the voters who voted against it, will remember to fill up outside the city limits whenever possible to avoid the tax.

When Arlingtonians are pointed toward Portland as an example, they should keep the full Portland experience with these projects in mind. However, like residents in Portland, a majority of Arlingtonians seem relatively immune from the argument that our tax rate, or debt, is too high or that shiny object projects often fail to meet expectations.

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