The Portland Streetcar has its detractors. Some are those incurably car-happy types who view all mass transit as a Bolshevik plot. Others think the 4.8-mile loop linking Northwest and Portland State is, in the words of Oregonian columnist S. Renee Mitchell, a "pretty, but non-essential, accessory."
Those gripes don't seem to sway the strap-hanging public. The streetcar's average haul of 5,700 riders a day doubles predictions made before the first trolley rolled in 2001, and weekend ridership nearly equals the line's workday numbers.
Nationwide, those stats--not critics' carping--capture attention. Rick Gustafson, who runs the streetcar's nonprofit management group, says at least one delegation from another city lands in Portland each week to ride the rails. He counts 72 municipalities--from Salem, Ore., to Washington, D.C.--either building, expanding or studying streetcar lines.
Portland's perceived success makes it the center of the national streetcar movement. With Portland congressman Earl Blumenauer lighting the way, that movement is nearing a Capitol Hill crossroads. The eastside Democrat is pushing to write streetcar-friendly language into a $375 billion transportation bill, which is now inching through Congress with all the speed of Seattle gridlock. An alliance of cities and activist groups called the Community Streetcar Coalition has united behind Blumenauer's efforts.
Right now, streetcars compete for crucial federal dollars with freeways and light rail. Streetcar proponents say those big-ticket transit options serve different ends than streetcars, and come out looking better in federal number-crunching formulae. Blumenauer wants to set up a new set of funding and design-study mechanisms for so-called "small starts," new transit projects costing less than $75 million.
"If it passes, this represents a real change in how the federal government funds transit," says Charlie Hales, the former city commissioner who presided over the Portland line's construction. "Right now, all the federal calculations are about moving suburbanites into the city to work. That's not what a streetcar is about. It's about making an urban lifestyle feasible."
Streetcar fans believe Blumenauer's efforts could make a dramatic difference in what gets built.
"If we could get the right formula of federal funding and design issues, we could cobble together money for a mile at a time," says Ed Crawford, a transit spokesman in Tampa, Fla., home to a successful faux-antique trolley line. "On a streetcar, a mile is a long way."
This national revival focuses attention on Portland's colorful Czech-built streetcars--and the congressman associated with the project.
"Let me put it this way," says Crawford. "If Earl were running for president, I would quit my job and go to work for his campaign."
Of course, Blumenauer's not running for Prez. But he knows someone who is. In early December, the congressman endorsed John Kerry, at a time when the Massachusetts senator trailed Howard Dean in his own state. With Kerry now riding high and looking to pick up votes in a swing state...well, every president does need a transportation secretary.