In a seemingly sterile office building on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard, tram fever has broken free of its South Waterfront petri dish and entered the fertile mind of ex-Boeing engineer Ben Missler.
While Portlanders await their chance this week to ride the tram to and from Oregon Health & Science University, Missler is brewing plans for more trams all across America.
Missler, a self-described 15-year veteran of the alternative energy movement, last year established a company designed to achieve his aims. Mass Tram America Inc. has three employees but is looking to hire grant writers and visionary engineers.
At 66, Missler aims to implement a revolutionary new transportation system across America by—you guessed it—hanging trams to create a highway in the sky. Among Missler's candidates for a new tram link: using it on the congested I-5 bridge between Washington and Oregon instead of building a costly new bridge.
"I'm projecting within three years we'll have a working prototype," Missler said during a recent meeting in Mass Tram America's business operations room, which was strewn with solar panels, plants and a K'Nex Pirate Ship Park assembly kit in the corner.
The bearded Missler, who kept pens in his shirt pocket and sported green cargo pants and brown Savior sandals over white socks, explained his plan like this:
Mass Tram America would strip decommissioned airplane fuselages of their wings, engines and tails to convert into tram cars.
The cars would be individually fitted with solar cells and hydrogen-cell battery storage to supply power to each car, which would then be attached by electric, motorized wheels to a rail system hanging 50 to 300 feet in the sky. Towers to support the rail system would be erected every 1,000 feet and be fitted with solar panels and wind turbines.
Missler says Mass Tram America has already identified a few companies to build the permanent magnetic electric motors for the cars, which would travel at 150 to 200 mph. But no contracts will be signed until design is complete.
Unlike Portland's infamously over-budget tram, Missler says, the mass tram would be relatively easy and inexpensive to build because "all of its components utilize off-the-shelf technology." Missler, who first caught tram fever "in the mid-1980s while sitting in a Seattle traffic jam," concedes the hurdles may be high, given that the mass tram idea is the first of its kind.
After joking about old VW buses being cheaper than decommissioned fuselages and the benefits of dirigibles, Metro Council President David Bragdon got serious when asked about a new local tram. "If we're going to spend money inproving a transit bridge, it'll probably be a light rail," Bragdon responded.
Missler has completed Phase I of the project he calls "Highway in the Sky"—procuring an office and staff, developing a business plan and polishing off the preliminary designs.
He is now in Phase II, trying to raise $200,000 and contacting members of Congress like Reps. Peter DeFazio and David Wu (both D-Ore.).
"DeFazio was in Portland talking about the [OHSU] tram—talking about how great it was, nice view, etc.," Missler says. " He's on the transportation committee now, and David Wu—we're planning on talking to them."
Spokesmen for both congressmen weren't exactly gung-ho about the idea. Both declined comment.
Missler remains optimistic. A full-size prototype doesn't come into play until Phase III Mass Tram America has identified locales—like traffic-congested I-5 between Vancouver and Portland—in need of help.
"We'd like to do it across the Columbia," Missler says. "It could be done on the existing bridge there." When asked about the likelihood of Mass Tram America getting to test its prototype on the bridge, Missler replied, "We've got a lot of work to do on that one."
If you've been stricken by tram fever, contact Missler through his website, thehighwayinthesky.us. He holds weekly meetings about alternative energy and the tram project.