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Streetcar on a roll, but not just yet

Eager Portland riders are sharp contrast to suburban opposition
by: Meg Williams, United Streetcar’s prototype American-made streetcar was tested on the Portland East Side Streetcar Loop this week.

Public rail projects may be controversial in Clackamas County, but in Portland some people can't wait for the next transit line to open.

Shortly after workers began installing signs at the stations along the Portland East Side Streetcar Loop, they went back and put bags over them. People had been waiting to catch rides at the stations, even though the loop doesn't open for another three months.

It's easy to be confused. All of the rails are installed. The overhead wires are hot. And streetcars have been making the trip from the Pearl District over the Broadway Bridge to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and back. They include the prototype streetcar produced by United Streetcar LLC in Clackamas. With "Made in USA" painted on both sides, it ran on the eastside tracks for the first time this week.

But the scheduled opening of the eastside loop has also been repeatedly pushed back. Early studies called for it to open in 2011, a timeline that ultimately proved unrealistic. More recently, manufacturing problems on the new streetcars ordered from United Streetcar prompted systems operators to consider running replica vintage streetcars until the new ones arrived. That idea has been shelved and a grand opening is set for the weekend of Sept. 22 and 23.

"We are confident we will have enough streetcars to open the loop then. We don't know for certain when all of the new streetcars will be certified for service, but they will be -- and they will be the first streetcars built in America since 1952," says Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar Inc., the private, not-for-profit company formed to build and operate the streetcar system.

Buying more streetcars

The Portland East Side Streetcar Loop is a 3.3-mile extension of the existing streetcar line that runs from Northwest Portland through the Pearl District and downtown to Portland State University, and from there to South Waterfront.

The extension crosses the Broadway Bridge and will provide service to inner Northeast and Southeast Portland, including the Lloyd District, the Oregon Convention Center, the Central Eastside Industrial District and OMSI.

The extension will include 28 new stops. A separate project will connect it to the streetcar line in South Waterfront over the new transit bridge across the Willamette River, completing a loop around the Central City.

An analysis prepared before construction began estimated the extension will provide 3.5 million rides a year and reduce regional motor vehicle travel by 28 million miles a year.

An economic development study identified about 250 acres of potential redevelopment sites with a potential additional investment value of $5 billion in the project area.

In Clackamas County, the Lake Oswego City Council derailed a proposed streetcar connection to Portland. Activists also are fighting to break the county's $25 million commitment to the approximately $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project.

But in Portland, there was no significant public opposition when the City Council approved the $148.27 million eastside extension.

A little more than half the project cost -- $75 million -- is being paid by the Federal Transit Administration through its New Starts program. The remaining budget includes $27.68 million in urban renewal funds from the Portland Development Commission, $15.5 million from a local improvement district approved by property owners along the line, $6.11 million from Transportation System Development Charges and other city funds, $3.62 million from regional transportation funds approved by Metro and $360,000 from federal stimulus funds.

The Oregon Lottery has contributed $20 million to buy up to six new streetcars from United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works. Engineering issues prompted the city to spend an additional $1.35 million on them, raising questions about whether it will be able to afford only five streetcars. Gustafson is hopeful the sixth will still be purchased, however.

Praise for company

Even though United Streetcar has completed only one streetcar so far, interest in them is growing across the country. Not long after Portland placed its order, Tucson chose United Streetcar to produce the streetcars for its proposed streetcar project. Then in April, Washington, D.C., ordered two streetcars for a line scheduled to open in 2013.

The Obama administration has embraced United Streetcar as proof that public transit projects can help America regain its manufacturing edge. Most other streetcars -- including the earlier ones bought by Portland -- are made in Europe. But since the company tooled up to manufacture streetcars, it has been repeatedly visited by administration officials.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood unveiled the first streetcar there in July 2009 and returned in March 2011 after United Streetcar invested $4 million in a new fabrication bay and test track.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner toured the plant on April 25, later telling a City Club gathering, "A credible strategy for economic growth requires a willingness to do things, not just to cut things."

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff has praised the company and Portland Streetcar during two local visits in recent months.

Attention has focused also on Chandra Brown, vice president of Oregon Iron Works and president of United Streetcar. In August 2010, she was appointed to the U.S. Manufacturing Council, which works with the U.S. Commerce Department to identify and recommend ways for the federal government can help manufacturers increase their competitiveness both at home and abroad.

Members of the council met with White House officials and representatives of the commerce, labor and energy departments at the plant in July 2011 to discuss manufacturing issues.

"It is appropriate that we hold this meeting in the assembly bay where the first modern (American) streetcar was built in nearly 60 years," Brown said.