Portland Streetcar Asks City For More Money to Fix Its Only New Vehicle

Other streetcars won't be ready until March

For five months, it's been clear that the only operational American-made streetcar has a list of glitches.

Now Portland knows the bill.

In a contract amendment that goes before City Council on Wednesday, Portland Streetcar is asking the City of Portland for $145,000 to fix a malfunctioning propulsion system on the only streetcar that manufacturer United Streetcar has yet delivered to the city.

Buried in the request to City Council for the money is another detail that will infuriate streetcar doubters even more. None of the other five streetcars ordered by Portland from United Streetcar will be ready for service until March.

That's another delay from the original delivery date of June 2012 promised by United Streetcar in its the $19.5 million contract with the city. The company, a division of Oregon Iron Works in Clackamas, is the United States' only current streetcar manufacturer.

But the only streetcar it has actually finished building and testing is the Portland prototype, which is currently in service, but needs five months of repairs and testing. Those repairs—costing $95,000—can only begin when a replacement streetcar is ready. (Another $50,000 in fixes can start immediately.)

United Streetcar spokeswoman Christine Hotchkin says the company is now ready to send Portland Streetcar the first of its five new cars.

"We're delivering the first production car tonight," she tells WW.

Rick Gustafson, president of Portland Streetcar Inc., says the prototype streetcar will be taken out of service as soon as the new streetcar is finished with tests—which should take two months. The prototype would return in September with a new electric drive.

"It's running," Gustafson says. "We limited speed to 25 miles per hour. That's the primary issue. There are a lot of other issues with the car."

The prototype streetcar was rushed into service last fall when the city opened its east-side streetcar extension, called the Central Loop, without United Streetcar finishing any of the five new streetcars. The United Streetcar prototype gave the city system 11 streetcars, joining 10 European manufactured steeetcars.

That was enough to provide full service on both sides of the Willamette River, though waiting times for arrivals increased.

But the United Streetcar prototype has often malfunctioned, for reasons described in the new request: "several non-safety related conditions remained to be monitored and addressed, most significantly, the performance of software, the low-voltage power supply system and the probable under-sizing of the drives."

The petition for more money—which would be pulled from the reserves of a federal transportation grant to the city—is the first major streetcar request placed in front of new Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who has returned to City Hall from working as a streetcar-system salesman for HDR Inc.

Hales, who is currently in Washington D.C. for the presidential inauguration, declined comment on problems with the east-side streetcar line during his mayoral campaign.

City Council will consider the contract amendment on Wednesday.

UPDATE, 5 pm Tuesday: Gustafson tells WW that United Streetcar is paying for repairs on the prototype streetcar. "The work they do is being done at their own expense," he says.

The $145,000 would go to Portland Streetcar for "testing and oversight" of the car, Gustafson says.