USA Today plugs Portland streetcars.

Portland Streetcar. Creative Commons via Flickr user ellie (click photo for source).

Apologies for this being a few days old.

As a journalist, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with USA Today. The paper’s maniacal obsession with trends borders on the ridiculous. I don’t feel especially well informed about the state of the nation by being bombarded with disembodied statistical snapshots or smarmy featurettes on the growing popularity of roller derby, cupcakes and hookah bars.

Now let me take off my snarky hat. The paper has done much good journalism over the years — which I would have said regardless of the praise I’m about to give it for this recent piece on the national attention garnered by Portland’s popular modern streetcar system.

My trend-bashing aside, I think reporter Judy Keen hits the nail on the head with two particular statistical passages:

First, she notes that “this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded grants totaling $258.6 million for streetcar projects in Portland, Tucson, Dallas, Cincinnati, Charlotte, St. Louis and Fort Worth.” Has Portland’s success helped fuel that renaissance, as she suggests? Probably to some degree, although it’s hard to make a convincing argument in the scope of a daily newspaper story (and don’t I know it). The process of bringing modern streetcar plans from concept to completion will vary from place to place based on local needs (Cincinnati and Fort Worth, notably, have both seen some stiff battles in this regard). But I believe Portland’s example has in many respects created a new paradigm for light rail transit in America — albeit based on a classic precedent.

The predominant paradigm for new systems from Edmonton (1978) until Portland Streetcar (2001) seemed to favor light rail as quasi-rapid transit, making extensive use of private rights-of-way. Since the new Portland system opened, it seems many cities — such as those noted in the story — are eyeing creation of light rail lines that operate primarily in city streets. Lo and behold, they are calling such things streetcars or even trolleys, recognizing them for exactly what they are and eschewing the PR mentality of the 1980s and ’90s which (mostly; see San Diego) avoided those dowdy old words like the plague.

Portland is, of course, a trailblazer in so many ways. Its MAX light rail system exemplifies the LRT pioneers of the 1980s that were largely characterized by rapid transit-style operation. And now the Rose City can claim the first of America’s truly new streetcar systems.

Back to the USA Today piece, Keen cites another interesting and useful bit of information: “In 2008, a study by the city found that Portland’s streetcar system had generated $3.5 billion in investments and prompted construction of 10,212 housing units within two blocks of the line.”

Without seeing the study and its methodology I don’t want to cling too tightly to that statement. Remember that development doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and effective public transit is only one tool — albeit a powerful one that is finding increasing favor across the country.  Does it work? As a snapshot of the arguments pro and con, consider advocacy such as that explained here, by Lloyd Alter who says “investment follows infrastructure.” Then there is the opposite view, as represented by Randal O’Toole who argues against spending taxpayer funds to subsidize transit projects that benefit narrow special interest groups with minimal benefit to the greater community.

Putting policy aside, as a railfan I was thrilled to see the writer quote Mike Szilagyi, longtime Webmaster of the Philadelphia Trolley Tracks site (which even includes some of my trackless trolley pictures in the galleries here). I think it’s fitting that the reporter sought out a Philadelphian, since SEPTA’s diverse collection of city streetcar and suburban trolley lines represents a surviving first-generation system that embodies many characteristics planners are replicating in new systems.

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One Response to USA Today plugs Portland streetcars.

  1. Christine says:

    While I do believe that the Portland Streetcar helped to spur development, there were lots of other things going on, including development of parks, general improvement of the area, and the offer of tax abatement and other incentives for lofts and condo developments. The tax abatement has been substantial and controversial. Finally, although I also am not familiar with the methodology that was used, I would have preferred to see a study by an impartial party.
    That said, the Portland streetcar is nearly always full. It would be hard to claim that it’s not an asset for both residents and visitors.

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