This inaugural trip of the new line, called the Central Loop, was supposed to be a triumphant ride.
The $148.3 million transit project adds 3.3 miles of track, nearly doubling the length of streetcar service. It’s one of the first federally funded streetcar rail projects (and the nation’s most expensive). And it vaunts Portland as a model of what The Wall Street Journal described last week as an American streetcar “revival.”
But no one was talking about the problem Portlanders have yet to discover: The eastside streetcar is already cutting back service—even before it starts running.
The streetcar—a mode of transportation already notorious in the Pearl District and Southwest Portland for its sluggish pace and long waits between cars—will run even less frequently on all its routes when the eastside line opens next month.
When streetcar officials pitched the city for Central Loop funding five years ago, they promised transit that would arrive at stops every 12 minutes—about the same as current service in the Pearl District.
But waits on the new line could be as long as 18 minutes on weekdays, 17 minutes on Saturdays and 20 minutes on Sundays.
Records show the new eastside route will so tax the system that the existing routes will run even more slowly: The westside streetcar from Northwest Portland to Portland State University will arrive every 14 minutes instead of the current 12 to 13 minutes. (Only one stretch of track—Northwest and Southwest 10th and 11th avenues, where the two lines overlap—will see twice as many arrivals.)
Portland Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit that runs the line, says it’s already short of money after the City of Portland and TriMet cut funding for operating the streetcar this year.
And the money isn’t going to increase soon.
“For about three to five years, you’ll probably see a lot of baling wire in the budget,” says Rick Gustafson, president of Portland Streetcar.
Streetcar officials have kept the funding problems quiet while churning up publicity around the eastside route’s opening.
“I think this problem kind of grew on them,” says Peter Finley Fry, an urban planner who serves on the Portland Streetcar citizen advisory committee.
“Government isn’t very good at anticipation,” Fry says. “What can you do? Do you not open it and wait?”
Fry also says he believes the slower service won’t matter that much to riders.
“I think frequency is an overrated thing,” Fry says. “Let’s say there’s a 20-minute [wait]. You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer.”
Eric Fruits, an adjunct professor in the urban studies department at Portland State University and a longtime critic of streetcar transit, calls the existing service “abysmally slow.” He notes that the streetcar’s projected travel time to get from OMSI to the Pearl District is 24 to 27 minutes. He then used Google Maps to add his own analysis.
“It takes 32 minutes to get from OMSI to Powell’s Books by foot,” he says. “It’s a virtual tie. But if you’re waiting [at a stop] an average of 8½ minutes, the streetcar loses the race. You can get there faster by walking.”
About 10,000 people a day ride the westside streetcar, finished in 2001 after it was promoted heavily by then-City Commissioner Charlie Hales, now a candidate for mayor. Hales has supported the eastside loop, which the city approved in 2007. (Hales had by then quit the council and gone to work for streetcar marketer HDR Inc.)
The feds kicked in $75 million for the eastside line in 2009, the state added $20 million in lottery-backed bonds, and the city funded the rest through the Portland Development Commission and a local improvement district that taxes property owners near the line. The complete loop won’t be finished until the new light-rail bridge across the Willamette River, which the streetcar will use, is done around 2015.
But the budget to run the streetcar is another matter.
The streetcar is funded through fares, sponsorships for the train stops and some private donations. But most of the operating costs are covered by the City of Portland and TriMet.
Portland Streetcar once hoped for an annual operating budget of $9.4 million to deliver the service levels it promised.
But officials have known for months they would fall short. “We will be lucky to be short only $2 million,” say minutes from the streetcar’s December 2011 citizen advisory committee.
In fact, the budget is now at $8.8 million after the city and TriMet cut their contributions this year—leaving it well short of providing the service it promised. (Streetcar officials had hoped to have 41 drivers for all the routes but say they can now hire only 39.)
Streetcar officials say they’re uncertain how much money fares will bring in. TriMet is doing away with its Free Rail Zone in September. The new fare for all streetcar rides is $1.
Portland Streetcar’s board of directors—chaired by Powell’s bookstore owner Michael Powell, with members including Adams and TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane—decided this summer it couldn’t risk paying 41 operators without knowing how many people would pay the $1 fare.
The advisory committee board minutes also reveal the streetcar is trying to plug budget holes with cash from selling business energy tax credits.
These credits are handed out by the state to projects that promote energy conservation and renewable fuel sources. Holders of the credits often sell to investors who then get to take advantage of the tax break.
The City of Portland, after cutting its streetcar funding, gave Portland Streetcar $1.9 million in tax credits; streetcar officials have already sold most of them for a one-time cash boost. Even with that, service is going to be much slower than once promised.
Plans to bandage the shortfall by getting companies to sponsor streetcar stops, for $500 a month, haven’t panned out. Of the 29 new stops on the eastside line, streetcar officials have signed only five sponsors.
TriMet is showing signs of lost faith in the streetcar’s performance. The transit agency had considered cutting service on its No. 6 bus, which runs along the eastside streetcar lines.
But TriMet officials now say they will increase No. 6 service. “We did informal onboard interviews with riders and chose not to pursue that realignment,” says Ken Zatarain of TriMet’s service division.
Fruits says TriMet’s decision suggests the eastside streetcar is not only infrequent but superfluous.
“It’s doubly odd,” he says, “that TriMet decided the streetcar wasn’t an improvement on existing bus service. It’s a poor use of taxpayer money that seems to provide an inferior transportation alternative.”
The eastside line has other big problems: As previously reported by The Oregonian, United Streetcar, the Clackamas-based manufacturer of the streetcars, is running behind schedule. Those delays caused the streetcar to move back the opening of the new route by five months from April to September.
Now streetcar officials tell WW none of the five new cars will be ready when the eastside line opens in September—and won’t be until at least late November.
Despite setbacks, the City of Portland continues to support the streetcar. On July 9, the city renewed its contract with Portland Streetcar Inc. for another three years.
Hales, the mayoral candidate, has made much of his role in bringing the streetcar to Portland. He placed his campaign headquarters at 1220 SE Grand Ave., along the eastside streetcar tracks. The night of his May primary victory, the streetcar passed by on a test run and rang its bell.
Hales declined to be interviewed for this story. “We’re not going to comment on this one,” says Hales campaign manager Evyn Mitchell.
But streetcar advocates say they are undeterred by the budget problems and hope to use new lines as development tools. The city’s streetcar concept plan calls for lines to Lake Oswego, North Portland and Hollywood.
Fruits, the streetcar skeptic, says spending millions to spur development and increase property values is a poor use of transportation money.
“A lot of cities think it’s a magic pixie dust you can use to create density,” he says. “But I’ve never seen evidence that a streetcar is a superior form of urban transportation to a bus.”
FACT: Starting in September, Portland Streetcar will have to keep all of its 11 trains running—with no spares on hand—to meet even the reduced service schedule.