When Rob Barnard ’84 was earning degrees in architecture and construction management, his professors scheduled project deadlines and tests on the same day.
“What that was teaching you was time management, how to work with a small amount of sleep and under pressure,” says Barnard, who brought that work ethic home to Portland. During the next two decades, the once-sleepy Rose City gained acclaim for innovatively solving urban problems, including transportation woes that vex most cities. Barnard’s blueprints are all over that reputation.
In magazine rankings last year, Men’s Journal deemed Portland the best place to live in the United States, praising its “nearly flawless” public transit system; Prevention christened it America’s best walking town; and Bicycling named it the nation’s top place to pedal.
But in 2005, Portland’s reputation had seemed ready to unravel.
The city was building the West Coast’s only aerial commuter tram between Oregon Health & Science University on Marquam Hill to former industrial land along the Willamette River. OHSU had agreed to anchor that South Waterfront redevelopment with future expansions there–but only if the city built the tram, which would provide a three-minute ride down the hill and over Interstate 5 to connect the campuses.
Two years into the tram project, however, construction was behind schedule and far over-budget, eventually reaching $57 million. OHSU officials were worried. Residents beneath the tram route were incensed. Politicians were talking. The media was frenzied. Careers were on the line.
That’s when Rob Barnard “parachuted in,” as one admirer describes it.
Early in his career, the newest architect at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca worked on the gleaming Portland Convention Center before managing construction of a nearby MAX light rail station.
Vic Rhodes lured him to the city, where Barnard managed a series of transportation-related improvements that renewed the once-frayed Lloyd District into a commerce and entertainment mecca. Barnard moved to the Eastbank Esplanade, transforming neglected riverside real estate into an attractive pedestrian parkway. He was solving the city’s worst railroad and roadway bottleneck when he was assigned to take over the tram project in late 2005.
Rhodes, by then a private consultant, himself got caught in the tram’s political blender. He made this parting recommendation: “There’s one guy I know that can get the job done for you, and that’s Rob Barnard.”
“His work ethic was borderline manic,” says Geoff Owen (’95 Civ. Engr.), Barnard’s counterpart at tram contractor Kiewit Pacific Co. in Vancouver. “He brings to the table a feeling of partnership instead of one of antagonism.”
Barnard, in his own words, came in as an “agent for change” on a project mired in cost overruns due to design upgrades and spiking steel and concrete prices. Getting the tram back on track required a realistic budget, sufficient staff, complex engineering solutions, and a rededicated team.
Barnard handed over the keys to the tram December 1 last year, two weeks ahead of schedule. Once the sleek Swiss-built aerial cars took flight, the din of praise nearly drowned old criticisms. The Oregonian editorialized that “. . . the tram will burnish the city’s reputation for innovation and renovation.” The New York Times called the ride “a thrill.”
Polite and diplomatic, Barnard refuses to lay blame and is eager to share credit. “It’s not ‘The Rob Show,'” he says.
The stakes went beyond the South Waterfront, where a burgeoning riverside community promises 10,000 jobs and 5,000 high-rise condominium dwellers.
“If the tram hadn’t been built,” says Mark B. Williams, OHSU’s South Waterfront director, “right now we would be in the middle of a mega-lawsuit between OHSU and the city.”
That in turn could have stifled Portland’s progress.
“To do great things, you have to have partners. Nobody has a big pot of money,” Barnard says. “It is just a tram, but it’s a symbol for what the region does. We take a complex problem, look at innovative solutions, pool our resources, and build it.”
Barnard is on to the next great thing, joining TriMet to manage the transit agency’s expansion of light-rail service in downtown Portland, part of a larger plan for light rail, including ambitions to cross north into Vancouver.
“I would love the opportunity to work on those [projects] if TriMet thought I was the right person to do it,” says Barnard, who works five and a half days a week for his new bosses and Sundays wrapping up the tram project. “I still have to prove myself and do a good job.”