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Portland. Oregon

If Dallas’ McKinney Avenue streetcar represents the “low end” for new American streetcar lines (in cost, not in service quality), the new Portland Streetcar is the high end. When operations began on July 20, 2001, Portland, Oregon, became the first American city since World War II to inaugurate streetcar service with modern equipment.

Photo: Harold Geissenheimer

A Streetcar in Portland, Oregon.

Portland’s new streetcar line is a 2.4 mile long downtown loop (4.8 miles of track) with five modern streetcars built in the Czech Republic. The cars run from 5:30 AM to midnight Monday through Thursday and to 1:30 AM on Friday and Saturday; through most of the day, service is at 15-minute intervals. By the end of its first week of service, it was already carrying about 7000 people each day—almost double what was projected. The line connects many important downtown venues, from Portland State University on one end to Good Samaritan Hospital on the other. It also provides local distributor service to Portland’s MAX Light Rail system, and is intended to spur and shape redevelopment of two major downtown locations, one a former railroad yard.

From the beginning, the Portland Streetcar was a citizen’s project, not just a government program. Starting in 1990, a team of consultants worked with a Citizens Advisory Committee to plan the streetcar route. The initial alignment was presented to the public, then changed significantly in response to public comments and suggestions. Development considerations played a major role in those changes. One study notes,

Dialogue was beginning with the property owners and other interested parties about two large parcels of undeveloped land near the central city. Those parcels are the River District to the north of downtown and North Macadam to the south. The conversations centered around the benefits to the City and to the property owners of not developing huge amounts of office space. Rather than competing with the downtown office market, it was proposed to complement the jobs market with new medium-to high-density housing and to use the streetcar as the appropriate transit tool to facilitate and support that development.31

Once the route was chosen, citizen involvement did not end. On the contrary, a new, non-profit corporation, Portland Streetcar, Inc., was formed to build and operate the line. The Board of Directors is made up not of politicians but of leading Portland businessmen, developers, and executives. Only one elected official, City Commissioner Charlie Hales (a leading proponent of streetcars for Portland), is a member. By giving private citizens, including developers, a leading role in the streetcar project, Portland has insured that the community is united behind the streetcar line instead of being divided by it.

Portland was also careful to draw a distinction between streetcars and Light Rail. Portland’s Light Rail system, MAX, opened in 1986 and has since expanded with several new lines. MAX is popular and, in terms of ridership, very successful. But the smaller, more intimate scale of streetcars was emphasized strongly. A study co-authored by Commissioner Hales states:

A general tenet of the project is, “This is not light rail; it’s a streetcar. ... Rather than regional travel, the streetcar is intended to serve short local trips. The theme of simplicity permeated every aspect of the project, not only to keep costs low, particularly in its urban setting, but also to ensure that the streetcar line blended in with the neighborhoods through which it passes. It employs small sidewalk stops, a simple track structure, an unobtrusive overhead power supply, and it has required few utility relocations.32

Another paper sounds the same theme:

Early on, it was decided that Portland Streetcar should be integrated with every day street life, should respect the human scale of the city and should minimize disruption to the community during construction...The streetcars use existing rights-of-way, do not require separation from automobile traffic and allow on-street parking to remain...Construction staging was such that we worked in 3 block segments. From the day the contractor cut into the street to the day everything was finished was 3 weeks.33

Minimizing construction time and disruption is especially important to retail merchants whose businesses lie along the streetcar route.

Portland’s approach to the streetcars themselves is also instructive. Usually, when a city needs new rail equipment, it decides what it wants, then finds someone to build it. Portland realized this approach would be very expensive, because it only needed seven streetcars (five initially and two later). Wisely, it instead chose to buy “off the shelf.” It found a company that already built streetcars and took what it had to offer, with a minimum of modifications.

The company was Skoda in the Czech Republic. Skoda is an old and highly respected firm, and for decades it had built streetcars for service in central and eastern Europe. Skoda offered Portland a variant of its standard Astra streetcar design. While MAX’s Light Rail Vehicles are 92 feet long (and usually run as two-car trains), Skoda's streetcar is just 67 feet long. It has doors on both sides and can be operated from either end. The car is air-conditioned, the interior is bright and open, and the middle section has a low floor, making it easy to get on and off. It can seat thirty people, and has room for 87 standees; for the short trips that are typical of streetcar travel, many people prefer to stand (big windows let even standees see out). As Portland intended, its new Skoda streetcars fit into neighborhoods rather than dominating them.

Skoda and other eastern European companies, including some in Russia, may be able to supply streetcars to other American cities, and do so at reasonable prices. The seven Skoda streetcars cost Portland $13.4 million, for a price per car just under $2 million. This is up to a third less than some modern Light Rail Vehicles cost. At the same time, it is substantially more expensive than either Vintage or Heritage streetcars. Modernity has its price, as conservatives know only too well.

Has Portland’s streetcar been successful? As of this writing, it has been in operation less than one year. But in one important way, we can already say it has succeeded, because it is already affecting economic development positively.

A rail transit line's effect on development begins before the trains start to run. It begins once a firm commitment to build the line is made and the exact route is decided. At that point, developers know where and when they will have high quality public transit. They also know that once the line opens, transit is there to stay. This is a major difference from bus service, and it is the reason why rail transit has profound effects on development and bus service does not.

From the outset, the Portland Streetcar was seen as a tool for shaping development. A study notes that:

The Portland Streetcar Project is part of the City’s growth management strategy…City goals call for 15,000 new housing units and 75,000 new jobs in our urban core. The River District and North Macadam District will be the site of over half of the new housing units and one-fifth of all the new jobs. We believe that providing high density housing close to jobs and all of the amenities available in downtown is a good idea and a good deal. Portland Streetcar will be the essential transit link connecting people to their jobs, to shopping, to educational institutions and to the arts and cultural community…At the south end of the River District, the Brewery Blocks Development is under construction. This is a major mixed-use development on five City blocks that once housed the Blitz Weinhard Brewery…The developer sees the streetcar project as a key element in the success of their project.34

The Brewery Blocks Development was under construction before streetcar service began.

The day streetcar service started, July 20, 2001, the local newspaper, The Oregonian, ran a special section devoted to the new streetcar line. It, too, could already report positive effects on development:

In Northwest Portland, already heavily developed, advertisements are appearing promoting apartments close to the streetcar line…In the West End, projects in the late planning stages include the three-block Museum Place, a mixed-use development near the Portland Art Museum, and the Mosaic condominiums. The condominium project, next to the Old Church, will have no parking…On Lovejoy Street at Northwest 11th Avenue, a building called the Streetcar Lofts is nearly completed, with units selling for $120,000 to $655,000.  It will carry a neon sign blaring the message, “Go By Streetcar”…Michael Dale, who moved recently from downtown to the new Gregory condominiums, loves watching the streetcar pass his window in a way that he said he could never love looking at a bus. “It seems so attractive that you just want to ride it,” he said. “You want an excuse to get on.”35

If streetcars can have this much effect on development before they enter service, it is not reasonable to think they will have even more after service starts. Not surprisingly, Portland is already planning to extend its new streetcar line.

How much did all this cost? As we noted, Portland represents the high end of new streetcar lines, and it was not cheap. At the same time, it cost less than Light Rail, and far less than many urban freeways.  Including everything—tracks, wires, streetcars and carbarn—Portland’s initial 4.8 miles of streetcar lines (for a 2.4 mile loop) cost $56,925,164, for a per-mile construction cost of just under $12 million. Portland believes the streetcar line’s benefits, especially in terms of downtown development and revitalization, are worth the cost.



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