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Tram backers approach Troutdale

Milwaukie man envisions environmentally friendly transport system
by: Contributed graphic, A Milwaukie company wants to convert decommissioned airliners into trams powered by sun and wind, and establish a line between Troutdale and Mount Hood. Company officials explained the ambitious concept to the Troutdale City Council last week.

With gasoline prices currently stuck above $3 a gallon, global warming concerns generating headlines and the Portland-metro area gripped in gridlock that only gets worse, alternative transportation methods continue to inch toward the mainstream.

But car-pooling, driving a hybrid and taking the bus all pale in comparison to Ben Missler's 20-year renewable energy vision of building an $800 billion network of trams powered by wind and the sun across America.

The first stop along that audacious path? Troutdale.

A representative of Missler's company, Milwaukie-based Mass Tram America, explained the concept to city officials at the April 10 council meeting.

As part of the first link in a nationwide system to move people and freight, spokeswoman Julie Mikalson said the company hopes to build tram cables and towers from Troutdale to Mount Hood. The route would go through Sandy, Missler said, adding that he hopes to have conversations with officials there soon.

The trams, fashioned from decommissioned airplanes stripped of their wings, engines and tail, would run on cables above roads and freeways. Solar cells and battery storage would be installed on the fuselage/tram, which would be 'attached to a rail system by permanent magnet regenerative motorized wheels,' a Mass Tram America Web site says. 'Power is provided through solar electricity, wind power, regenerative braking and fuel cells.'

Troutdale is appropriate because of its proximity to Portland and the East Wind, Mikalson said. The company is seeking a feasibility agreement with the city. While willing to entertain the concept, councilors directed Mikalson to come back with a plan specific to Troutdale.

Mayor Paul Thalhofer said he wasn't sure if such a large-scale project was the correct solution to the area's transportation woes. But he called it a 'very interesting' concept.

Given that the metro area is expecting one million new residents in the next 20 years, 'we're going to need alternative modes of transportation,' Thalhofer said. 'We're very short on funds to build new infrastructure, and railroads claim they're at capacity. There's still some room on the waterways, but we're going to have to think about other ways to move people around.'

But Councilor Jim Kight is skeptical of the science involved and said running a tram between Troutdale and Mount Hood 'makes no sense.' Mass Tram America has yet to make a working model and the presentation to council relied on an artist's rendering, he said.

'The science isn't there,' Kight said.

He also said the idea should be tested in a megalopolis such as Los Angeles or Chicago, not Troutdale.

Any futuristic proposal will face doubters, countered Councilor Barbara Kyle.

'This is an idea worth thinking about,' she said. 'Traffic is bad and will get worse. … I appreciate and find appealing the visionary concept of suspending a transportation system above the ground.'

Missler, 66, is a former Boeing engineer who has been working on his 'Highway in the Sky' idea for 24 years. Mass Tram America's corporation, which has some public stock for sale, and other private financing would help fund the project, he said.

He also described self-financing wind turbines, growing interest in wind farms, carbon dioxide offsets and electricity generation as other revenue streams.

Missler maintains that solving the 'transportation energy crisis' and global warming requires out-of-the-box thinking. Why did he decide to approach Troutdale officials first?

'We have a lot of work to do but we have to start someplace,' he said.

And he found a few councilors who are at least willing to hear him out.

'Initially, it sounds like it's off the wall,' Thalhofer said. 'But on the other hand, we have to have vision in this world.'