Transportation in the State of the City

In Friday’s State of the City address, Mayor Adams outlined several interesting ideas for transporation:

A Streetcar in Lents

Portland was a streetcar city and it shall return to being a streetcar city. And by “city,” I mean citywide.

The Mayor showed a visual simulation of a streetcar on Foster, and the development it would stimulate.

And best of all, the streetcars are built right here by Oregon Iron Works – on sale to the rest of the country. The only streetcar that meets the Buy America requirements for federal dollars.

Commitment to the Bicycle Plan

The same goes for our brand new bicycle plan, which elevates our aspirations to one in four trips in Portland to be made on bicycle. It’s the most ambitious, most comprehensive plan of its kind in the country. By building it out, we will be on par with the great bike cities of Northern Europe.

There’s been some chatter out there about cost, and that’s fine.

But folks, here’s the bottom line: we can’t afford not to build it. Think about the cost of any given trip made on bicycle versus private automobile. There’s no such thing as a pothole caused by bikes. No noise and no emissions. And you’re getting exercise, which, frankly, some of us – including yours truly – could use.

Even if you never plan to set foot on a bicycle, you benefit tremendously. Fewer vehicles, less congestion, reduced pollution.

We’re Portland and we lead the nation in bicycling, because that’s how we roll.


And if I’m talking innovation and greater resilience through transportation, I gotta talk about sidewalks. You may remember that the state legislature passed a modest increase in the gas tax last year. I want to put $16 million into sidewalk development in East Portland, North/NE Portland, and SW Portland – the areas of town annexed into the city that have never had sidewalks.

There is a caveat. Anti-tax types from elsewhere have submitted an initiative to the state to repeal that source of funding. When you see one of those signature gatherers on the streets I want you to think about Jean and her two infants. Jean can’t afford a car; she relies on transit. Can we really expect her to safely get to her MAX stop – with her stroller in tow – without a sidewalk? Is that fair? Is that Portland? I say no.

34 responses to “Transportation in the State of the City”

  1. There is a caveat. Anti-tax types from elsewhere have submitted an initiative to the state to repeal that source of funding. When you see one of those signature gatherers on the streets I want you to think about Jean and her two infants.

    Why do parking meters in Portland cost 1.60 hour? And now they even charge you on Sundays, in NW Portland. In Vancouver they are .50 per hour, and you can get 20 minutes for free, and no charges on Sunday. Our parking ticket costs have soared. How is this system working, Sam? Seems like the public needs a break somewhere.

  2. To make a city more walkable, transit oriented, and bicycle friendly, low density has to become a thing of the past. That means no more bungalows and no more single-use, single-story buildings.

  3. 2 words – Brick Sidewalks
    Instead of nasty concrete with a bad carbon footprint , how about beautiful brick walks.
    Lots of living wage jobs , Mr Mayor !
    There are several blocks of brick sidewalks in NW PDX, go try it for yourself , they don’t crack
    and leave dangerous ragged edges , they roll
    with the tree roots over time , and can be
    modified simply for repair.

  4. “And best of all, the streetcars are built right here by Oregon Iron Works ”

    The single unit purchased by PSC sits under 405 awaiting a propulsion redesign. It has never gone into service and lasted a full day.

    OIW is a steel fabricator, not a railcar manufacturer.

  5. Jean can’t afford a car; she relies on transit.
    JK: Huh??
    We have lots of people that cannot afford food yet we DO NOT build a system of 80% subsidized supermarkets for them, instead we do the rational thing – we give them help with their food bill (food stamps)

    Why build a multi billion dollar streetcar system that is slow, not cost-effective and an energy waster to help the poor when a few million in direct help will do the job. And probably be better for the recipient too as helping Jean buy a small car will save her time and save society money and energy. If she can’t drive, helping with jitney fare would still give her better service, cheaper than the billions we now spend building and operating the current welfare (80% subsidized) transit system)

    I’ll ask again:
    What is the social good of mass transit in view of the fact that it does not save energy, costs more and is slower compared to driving small cars and it requires massive government subsidy as opposed to cars paying most of their costs through user fees. (Note that, to the extent that cars depend on imported fuels and emit pollution, so do transit buses since transit buses use more energy to transport each person each mile.)

    (And local electric transit is powered by coal, nuke and a few fish and birds.)


  6. Yes, and Kraft only makes cheese. Not.

    My point is that OIW should be able to figure how to manufacture streetcars (not rail cars as you put it). They were making them 100 years ago, I’m there’s somebody who can adapt and figure it out.

  7. What is the deal with the streetcar? I heard they’re looking to switch from the Skoda engine to one made in the US. Anyone know exactly why? I can only imagine it’s gone to cost more, be less efficient, be missing features of the tried and true propulsion system, and probably break more often. Anyone know the specifics, and the differences?

    [Moderator: Commenter’s last name reduced to initial in this thread per commenter’s request.]

  8. OIW is a fabrication company but they work in a lot more than steel.

    From their web site

    “Our manufacturing expertise encompasses ferrous and non-ferrous materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, machine-grade steel and composites. We fabricate structural materials in accordance with the most stringent standards, codes and specifications, including: ABS • NAVSEA • AWS • ASTM • ASME • AISC • NQA-1”

    United Streetcar is the actual company that builds the Streetcar, but they are a sub-division of OIW.

  9. Aaron G. Says: I heard they’re looking to switch from the Skoda engine to one made in the US.
    JK: Engine? I wasn’t aware the streetcar has an engine! I think you mean motor.

    Aaron G. Says:I can only imagine it’s gone to cost more, be less efficient, be missing features of the tried and true propulsion system, and probably break more often.
    JK: I think you’ll find plenty of electric motor design expertise in the USA.

    The real key component is the controller. But we are still the world leader in power semiconductors.


  10. You are correct JK, I meant motor.

    My concerns about reliability have less to do with where the US stands and more to do with the fear they’re looking to retrofit these with a non-standard setup for political or social reasons instead of technical reasons.

  11. The propulsion system issue (which is basically power conversion and motor control, but not the actual electric motors themselves) was discussed quite a bit at the last streetcar CAC meeting.

    There’s a lot of variables being discussed, and I don’t have direct personal knowledge of what’s going on behind-the-scenes, but the summary version appears to be this:

    The Skoda-supplied propulsion system design is running into difficulties getting certified under FTA regulations. If it’s not certified, it can’t be used in regular-service transit operations in the US, at least if Federal money is involved.

    There may be nothing wrong with the actual Skoda design, but the Skoda engineers have been unable thus far to provide documentation to the standards that are required here, and there may have been design changes incorporated informally which must be documented. There is also apparently a level of communications difficulty involved, which has led to frustration on the part of OIW. Thus, selecting a different propulsion system which is easily US-certified is an appealing option. How much of this is red tape vs. genuine engineering documentation difficulties or actual design issues, I don’t know.

    The problem which comes after that is that there is more than one vendor of propulsion systems. One of those vendors, which is a subsidiary of Siemens, could provide a system that would work, but there is some concern that the main Siemens company is a would-be competitor of United Streetcar, so the United Streetcar people are somewhat reluctant to lock themselves into a vendor relationship with a competitor (even though the propulsion system comes from a subsidiary which specializes in such things and ostensibly will sell to anyone without interference from the larger Siemens company.)

    The other potential vendor is Rockwell, and it would be an entirely designed/built in the US solution, which is appealing, but it is a relatively untested design and past ventures into transit by a _different_ Rockwell subsidiary back in the 70’s and 80’s didn’t go so well, including propulsion system problems.

    Compounding the difficulty in reaching a decision is that OIW’s customers (and potential customers) such as Portland and Tucson have different leanings than United Streetcar when it comes to which vendor to select.

    I wouldn’t describe the situation as intractable … it’s more an issue of how soon, how much, who pays, and who (again) pays if there are problems down the road.

    Again, I’m not the definitive go-to source on this, and I may not be presenting the clearest picture here, but this is what I understand based on what we discussed at the last CAC meeting.

  12. (I just realized I used both the acronym OIW and name United Streetcar above, which is confusing. For the purposes of what I wrote just now, OIW and United Streetcar are the same thing.)

  13. JK, the Mayor was talking about building a sidewalk so residents can safely reach transit, this would be a bus stop.

    Are you saying that buying everyone cars is a higher priority than even basic sidewalks???

  14. Unit Says: Are you saying that buying everyone cars is a higher priority than even basic sidewalks???
    JK: Just read what I wrote and don’t try to put words in my mouth.


  15. Rockwell will be a big mistake. They have the defense contractor mentality of “cost plus” and “the more complicated the better”.

    The whole idea is silly. I think Jim’s general attitude about public transit is foolish because he conveniently ignores the rush hour. [Moderator: Personally-directed remark removed, although it makes the rest of the sentence awkward – Bob R.] (e.g. he’ll be denying people those H-3’s to get to “little car Valhalla” and running lotteries for work start times in order to have enough room on the roads for all those cute little Smart cars) or he’s doing a bait and switch.

    BUT, he’s right about streetcars. When they ran before America was a MUCH more polite place, and drivers were courteous and got out of their way. Today’s knuckle draggers cut in, stop suddenly, park on the tracks and generally make total asses of themselves. Streetcars only work in reserved right of way or on minor arterials like 10th and 11th.

    Running a streetcar from downtown to Lents is crazy. While there’s probably sufficient capacity on Foster to take a couple of lanes, getting out to 43rd would be a nightmare. There is NO street with the capacity to give the cars their own lanes. None. Nada.

    So forget about it. Concentrate on running frequent buses and make the stops farther apart so they run more quickly.

  16. Sidewalks, particularly on the east side (and I mean east of I-205, not felony flats) should be a #1 priority, followed by fixing the potholes and finishing all of the bumpy gravel roads… and there are a lot of them.

    Regardless, Id rather see us spend tax money on things that everyone uses (roads & sidewalks) then something only a select few will ever use (streetcars & bike trails).

  17. Sidewalks have historically been paid for by developers and/or residents with LIDs. Actually there is a lot to be said for unpaved streets with potholes…less and slower traffic, safer for kids and dogs, etc. I grew up on one in Multnomah. re more buses on Foster…take a look at the 14; it runs about as frequent as a bus can. Streetcars can be transformative in ways that buses cannot. Foster has plenty of room for a streetcar between HCT on Powell and the Green Line. Have some vision.

  18. They have a short QuickTime video file which shows an animation of that street scene coming together:

    You need Apple’s QuickTime player or plug-in to view the video. If your browser doesn’t support it, you may need to download the file to your desktop (or another local location) and play it directly with the QuickTime player.

    I recognize one of the buildings in the rendering as the new Whole Foods + condos in the Hollywood District. Can anyone ID the others? I hope the vision doesn’t actually include airlifting existing multistory buildings from other neighborhoods and dropping them down in Lents. :-)

  19. A streetcar on Foster scored very highly in the Streetcar System Plan SE District Working Group. (I was a regular participant in that group and was one of the people who participated in a walking and info-gathering tour of the Foster corridor segment for that group — out to 82nd.)

    The SE District Working group strongly recommended that Hawthorne-50th-Foster be considered as a continuous corridor, rather than Foster in a vacuum, although there are technical issues with key portions of Hawthorne which _may_ prevent streetcar adoption on that street for a number of years, in which case it may be appropriate to consider Foster as a distinct corridor after all.

  20. They don’t like to remind people of how ugly it really is!

    That must be why they didn’t include any operating motor vehicles in the streets in that picture, either.

    I’m glad that you’re implicitly conceding that the images in the photo, such as the condo buildings and the bike track, aren’t ugly. :-)

    (This comment brought to you by Sauce, Goose, Gander & Co.)

  21. “A streetcar on Foster scored very highly in the Streetcar System Plan SE District Working Group.”

    Replacing the Line 14?

    Can you imagine being a current Line 14 commuter and learning the new option for commuting on Hawthorne/50th and Foster is a streetcar?!

    But it’s so European….so romantic

  22. Ernie –

    Take a look at page 53 of the Public Involvement Report. 529 people responded to the survey in SE, and of those, about 55% rated Hawthorne/50th as a “high priority” for upgrading to streetcar service, while another 23% listed it as a “medium priority”.

    The 40+ participants of the SE District working group held over a dozen public meetings in addition to the city’s open houses, split up into walking tours of each corridor, and contacted business owners, residents, and transit riders face-to-face, as well as the city’s survey.

    Please note that this group was not fixated only on streetcars, as the adopted conclusions include these two primary recommendations (page 54):

    Consider energy-efficient trolley busses, enhanced bus service and bus rapid
    transit, integrated with a streetcar system, on any Southeast corridor where these
    modes are more feasible

    Develop a more efficient and seamless transit system for riders, not just add
    another mode

    Please also note that from page 61, most (but not all) of the neighborhood and business associations consulted support the potential expansion of streetcar service into their neighborhoods. (I would be remiss if I did not point out that my own neighborhood association has strong criticisms of the process and expressed serious concerns about streetcars, but they’re not in SE).

  23. That 92nd and Foster intersection has heavy traffic all day/every day… that streetcar vision photo is very misleading.

  24. Bob,

    Thank you for admitting that Hawthorne does not have the physical capacity for the dedicated right of way needed for a successful streetcar. Nor does Division, Belmont, or Powell. Anything less in such a congested and important area would be a catastrophe.

    Believe it or not I’m not against streetcars. I love to ride them and think that Lake Oswego has a real chance to succeed because of the high proportion of dedicated ROW. The circulator around Gateway may also; again, the streets it is to travel are relatively little traveled.

    And it’s likely that some kind of northwest extension would work too, because except for the 17 Sauvie Island, most buses in the neighborhood terminate just a little way beyond the street car line and except for 23rd (which is not under consideration TTL) the streets are relatively untraveled.

    But putting these poor defenseless vehicles in aggressive congested traffic is ay-carramba mindless. It wasn’t entirely Big Bad GM and Standard Oil who killed off streetcars. It was traffic.

    It’s no accident that the only streetcar systems that survived into the 1960’s either had extensive private ROW (Boston, Pittsburgh, and Shaker Heights) or a tunnel through a major mountain that couldn’t be converted to bus (San Francisco and Pittsburgh).

    The existing streetcar is the accidental beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of private investment. It’s possible that some of it came because of the streetcar, but not most. And it won’t be replicated on the East Side of the river.

    Replacing buses with streetcars running in mixed traffic will simply slow peoples’ rides. Without taking lanes from traffic they’re expensive toys. The Broadway Bridge crossing will demonstrate that very soon, and I genuinely believe it will take a lot of air out of the enthusiasm for these pleasant, but limited, vehicles.

  25. The thought of a streetcar replacing the 15 on Belmont makes me weep. Is Portland actually intent on destroying mobility? Is TriMet ok with this? If the area population (inside the UGB) actually increases by 70% over the next fifty years, lots and lots of high-density development will be built anyway. Is it a good idea to slow everything to a crawl by rebuilding an obsolete transit system? Imagine 70% more people trying to get around while streetcars on every major street make their interminable crawl toward each stop, waiting for lights to change just so the operator can open the doors, honking and waiting for someone to come outside and move their car three inches closer to the curb.

    The scary thing is that the MLK/Grand streetcar will probably work, since each street is four lanes one way plus two lanes parking. Then it will be full speed ahead building tracks on streets that are not large enough, like those Anandakos mentioned.

  26. Why do people always jump to the conclusion that streetcar service displaces or replaces bus service?

    I see them as complimentary. Streetcar service is for the more localized service that requires frequent stops. The streetcar actually increases the mobility of the bus by removing those trips from the bus service, allowing the bus to stop less frequently and get from A to B faster. One good example is the 72 – which is a frequent service line originally designed for commuters. Moving the short on-off trips to a streetcar line would allow the 72 to get from Clackamas to Swan Island without the significant delays on 82nd that you get between Powell and Killingworth from people getting on, riding for 6 blocks and then getting off.

  27. Streetcars are narrower than buses, they would fit fine on hawthorne, just remove some parking where the stations will be. Replacing (not complementing) line 14 with a streetcar would increase capacity on the route, raise ride quality, almost certainly increase ridership, and lower operating costs per passenger.

  28. Cora Potter: I see them as complimentary. Streetcar service is for the more localized service that requires frequent stops. The streetcar actually increases the mobility of the bus by removing those trips from the bus service, allowing the bus to stop less frequently and get from A to B faster.

    In this ideal world you describe, the eastside streetcar will become the local service, and line 6 will begin running express on MLK/Grand where they share space. That would be great for bus riders destined for downtown, who would shave a few minutes off their commutes.

    However, in reality, the world in which we live, the world in which transit service is incredibly volatile and is continually slashed, line 6 is going to be truncated to the Convention Center, forcing downtown-bound riders to transfer to MAX. Thus we add inconvenience and time to the commute trips of transit dependent populations in Portland’s historically black core. It’s a shame that no one is willing to talk about this.

    How are they planning on paying for the operations of the eastside streetcar? No one knows yet. There really isn’t a choice, though…does anyone actually think that new operating funds will magically appear between the next round of major service reductions and when it opens? Of course not…the new streetcar will come at the expense of bus service, it will not complement it.

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