Thanks for the ride

I’d like to thank all my readers living outside of Portland for buying me a streetcar:

Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, today signed a contract dedicating $75 million in federal money for the Portland Streetcar eastside loop extension and promised similar federal efforts across the nation.

The contract guarantees the money Portland-area agencies have been anticipating for the project, which started construction during the summer. As The Oregonian has reported, the money was delayed for years by the Bush administration, which funded bus rapid transit projects but blocked streetcars. […]

[U.S. Rep. Earl] Blumenauer praised the eastside loop project, which will extend from the Pearl District, across the Broadway Bridge to the Lloyd Center Mall, and south along Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

They’re not paying for it but local politicians are quick to claim credit:

“It’s an important down payment on our future in Portland, creating over 1,300 high wage jobs, spurring development and helping jump start the economy for the entire state,” Blumenauer said.

And to hand out contracts to favored constituents:

United Streetcar, a unit of Clackamas-based Oregon Iron Works, Inc., has a contract to build the streetcars needed for the new line.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Springfield Democrat, wrote legislation that made it nearly impossible for anyone but United Streetcar to bid on the work.

DeFazio and the Obama administration see domestic production of streetcars as a way to shore up the nation’s heavy manufacturing employment while creating more walkable, mixed use neighborhoods.

This street car line would run right by my current apartment, though by the time it’s built I hope to live somewhere else. Will it be an efficient use of resources? Possibly, but given the political incentives at work it would be a huge leap for me to believe so. Streetcars are grand, sexy projects. They give politicians a great deal to take credit for. Buses aren’t sexy. However they are cheap and adaptable to changing traffic patterns. If Oregonians paid for their own transit we might be funding those. But since the rest of you are paying, sure, let’s build a streetcar!

Transit contrarian Randal O’Toole takes on this sort of thing in his Cato paper “A Desire Named Streetcar.” His analysis seems apt for the current situation.

I’ve had only two experiences with the Portland streetcar. When I first moved here I enjoyed a gin-company sponsored ride around town with Pegus in hand. Last week I almost wrecked my bike slipping a wheel into its rails. Aesthetics aside, I don’t know what purpose the streetcar fulfills that couldn’t be served equally well by buses driving the same route.


5 thoughts on “Thanks for the ride”

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  2. Aesthetics (including the charming look of a streetcar as well as the smooth ride) do matter, and I’m guessing that studies comparing a route served by a bus to that same route served by a streetcar, the streetcar ridership numbered would be significantly higher. I think a big part of that is due to the superior “user experience” of a streetcar.

    The lack of adaptability to traffic can actually help a streetcar line “anchor” a neighborhood and provide developers with assurance that the neighborhood will have a quality transit option for a long time. Buses don’t do that.

  3. @Christopher Monnier: I think that’s a reasonable point, though I’m not convinced that the benefits of anchoring are worth the costs. (Much of this neighborhood is already anchored by light rail and it doesn’t seem to have helped much.)

    I’d be curious to see more projects like the DC Circulator. This is a separately branded bus with a simple route. My impression is that it has a higher brand value than the regular city buses and has the advantage of easily understood routes.

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