IN THE SAME week that TriMet rolled out its painful cuts and fare hike, the Portland Streetcar rolled out a preview run of its new $148 million Eastside Loop, which will open for service on September 22.
About 10,000 people ride the streetcar on an average weekday, compared to more than 324,000 who take TriMet. While the more widely used transit system is shrinking, the streetcar is adding a 3.35-mile loop of track that runs over the Broadway Bridge and down NE MLK to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and back up SE Grand. And while a sleek downtown billboard proclaims the eastside loop will "unite Portland," our relationship with the streetcar is probably best summed up as "it's complicated."
LOVE: It's cheap! A streetcar-only ticket will cost just $1, making it the cheapest transit across the river now that TriMet's axed the Free Rail Zone.
HATE: It's incredibly expensive! The new loop costs more than $44 million per mile (though that's cheaper than the MAX Green Line, which cost $69 million per mile). The feds picked up half the tab for the expansion, but most of the rest comes from state lottery funds ($20 million), local urban renewal money ($27.6 million), property taxes on buildings near the line ($15.5 million), and the cash-strapped city ($6 million).
On last week's preview ride, the streetcar's executive director, Rick Gustafson, responded to criticism over the cost by noting the deal to build the line was struck in 2008. "We're committed to it, we're obligated to build it. Yes, we have ups and downs in our economy, but long-term it's going to mean a great benefit to the city."
LOVE: It'll help development! The line runs past surface parking lots and under-utilized land in the central eastside. It's easy to see how the area is ripe for the dense housing development the streetcar aims to facilitate. The current streetcar line is said to have helped spur $2.3 billion in development downtown, including 7,000 housing units.
HATE: It's not so good as actual transportation! Cars on the new line will arrive only every 18 minutes, and it will take 32 minutes to get from OMSI to the Pearl—five minutes slower than on existing bus lines. Biking the same distance will get you there twice as fast.
LOVE: The streetcars are manufactured in Oregon! Clackamas-based United Streetcar built all the cars on the line, creating an estimated 90 jobs.
HATE: American-made is more expensive! The Oregon plant failed to meet its deadlines and ran over budget, so the new line has only five cars ready, instead of six, making waits between trains longer. (The plan is still to eventually run all six.)
LOVE: It cuts car traffic! For a number of reasons both quantifiable and mysterious, people who don't usually use public transit will ride the streetcar. Those new riders are projected to reduce car travel in the region by 28 million miles a year.
HATE: The tracks attack cyclists! A 2008 study showed that 70 percent of Portland cyclists have crashed on streetcar tracks at least once. With more than three new miles of track, expect more broken collarbones.