The Portland Streetcar: Time to Reset the Vision

By John A. Charles, Jr.CascadeNewLogo

If some Portlanders are confused about why we have a 19th century trolley operating in a 21st century city, they are not alone. City leaders are confused as well.

According to the Streetcar Concept Plan adopted by the Portland City Council in 2009, there are three primary policy goals related to streetcar expansion: (1) help the city achieve its peak oil and sustainability strategies; (2) provide an organizing structure and catalyst for the city’s future growth along streetcar corridors; and (3) integrate streetcar corridors into the city’s existing neighborhoods.

Oddly, providing transit service is not an explicit priority, even though that’s the primary reason people ride. Instead we have a mishmash of peak oil mania―now a quaint artifact due to the shale oil and gas booms, coupled with advanced technology―and vague references to real estate development. Given that this plan was estimated to cost $750 million and the city is broke, perhaps we should rethink the objectives.

First, the fundamental purpose of any transit program is to move people. On this criterion, the trolley is a weak performer. It’s slow, it doesn’t go many places, and each car only has 30 seats. It has high costs and low capacity, when what we need is the exact opposite.

If a secondary purpose of the streetcar is to encourage development, there are much better ways to do so. Subsidizing the streetcar means that most property owners will never benefit, because the system is tiny―seven route-miles after two decades of planning. If the city were simply to streamline the permitting process and lower System Development Charges, we would incentivize far more development in all sectors of the city compared to laying another mile of track.

Advocates claim that streetcar lines are “permanent” and provide stability for nearby development, but thousands of miles of streetcar tracks in the United States were paved over when they became obsolete 80 years ago. More recently, the streetcar tracks in South Waterfront along Moody Avenue have been torn up three separate times since 2011 to accommodate light rail. Nothing is really permanent; and when change is needed, it’s a lot easier moving a bus line than it is ripping up streetcar tracks.

A Better Way

We should insist that the streetcar be treated as a transit expenditure and evaluated on those terms. If we do this, it’s clear that rubber-tired vehicles traveling on the existing road network make much more sense.

Of the bus options I’ve examined, the best one is the Metro Rapid in Los Angeles. This system relies on distinctive, low-floor CNG buses with red stripes providing fast, reliable transit service. It operates in general purpose traffic lanes and achieves relatively high speeds by having stops spaced 0.75 miles apart, on average.

Also, the Metro Rapid buses have the technical capacity to shorten a red light or extend a green light at intersections to improve travel time.

A summary of the key characteristics of this system compared with the Portland Streetcar is shown below:

LA Metro Rapid Bus

Portland Streetcar

Year opened



Annual boardings

72 million

4.1 million

System length

400 miles

7 miles

Capital cost/mile

$0.35 million

$29 million

Peak frequency of service

Every 3-10 minutes

Every 14-19 minutes

Average speed

14-30 MPH

7-12 MPH


The Portland Streetcar is 83 times more expensive to build than the Rapid Bus alternative. Is it 83 times better? No. In fact, it is not superior by a single metric. The Rapid Bus is cheaper, twice as fast, and has much greater coverage throughout the city. It’s an actual transit system, not a Disneyland ride.

We should stop further expansion of the streetcar and shift public resources to low-cost, higher-speed bus transit.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.


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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Economy, Energy, Environment, Government Spending, Government Waste, Green Energy, Leadership, Local Taxes, Metro, Oregon Government, Portland, Portland Politics, Public Transportation, State Budget, State Government, Taxes, Transportation, TriMet | Tagged , , , , , | 35 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • lulzpdx

    Do you still cut your meat with your neolithic knife?

    • Leading question

      KISS: Rhetorical response, you beat yours?

      • lulzpdx

        Interesting. Think about it often?

        • Leading question

          Perhaps a trial prescription of Portnoy’s Restraint for lulzabye…

    • .

      “Neolithic” as defined by Urban Dictionary?

  • Bob Clark

    The “fish” wrapper (Oregonian) ran stories over the weekend about the outer Southeast Powell corridor. What the stupid fish wrapper forgets to mention in the story is the public money waste machine operating at Portland City Hall is wasting money on things like streetcars and non performing loans to hotels and other such projects which put a degree of glitz into the down town core but leave the people out in Southeast Portland without the public resources to even put in sidewalks. The local media doesn’t get it. While Portland city hall splurges on its fiefdom downtown, they neglect the common folk out in outer Southeast. Southeast Powell past I-205 heading east is a freaking joke what with people walking on darkened shoulders of the road.
    It’s not a problem with a shortage of public resources, it is a Portland City Hall which blows any additional revenues it gets on expanding a downtown infrastructure that it can’t even maintain.
    As for Peak Oil, this is one stupid theory that recurs over and over as people forget their history. U.S oil and natural gas production is on course for a sharp rebound destroying the Hubbard theory of peak oil. Moreover, General Electric and Sasol are advancing the process of converting coal to an energy liquid. This while energy efficiency continually advances. New Shale oil recovery technologies stem from twenty plus years of hard research and experimentation by a Texan oil businessman. It can happen with coal to liquids, too.
    We need a lot less planners and a lot more market driven private sector entrepreneurs. This is clear to anyone who doesn’t allow themselves to be spoon fed by the “journalists” trained in the thin air towers of academia.

  • That ain’t no life,

    And then there’s TriMet’s ORANGE ‘lemon’ LINE, a looming Mt. Effiigymore TRAM superciliosity – and lo(w) down, a Gluteus MAXimus transit bridge for which most types of cars are ‘trolled’ to stay off and many not-so-tall ships mitigated from sailing under.

  • Jack Lord God

    Oh wow, “Peak Oil”. That one brings back memories. John Travolta was a lousy actor on Welcome Back Kotter, Red sauce was out, pest was in, and disco roller skates was it baby.

  • Mike Smyth

    Seattle has a street car line. Portland Politicos are just jealous and need a street car line to sooth their little egos.

    • Metro taxpayer

      Jealousy or what? Many moons ago ‘wired’ Portland eschewed electric trolly buses while Seattle still utilizes them – and, while they may not appear as glamorous as light rail or toonerville creepcars, they’re certainly more cost effective as well as maneuverable (and stoppable) than TriMet’s egregiously $ugary parfait accompli boondoggles that have been topped off by a bunch of METROnomic nutmeat heads having overstayed their existentialism in PDXland.

  • Roger

    I like the streetcars. They give us a more relaxed, nuanced feel in the city. Also, they harken back to days of old, where simple things worked simply. The additional costs associated are irrelevant as this mode of transport helps combat global warming, too, which makes me proud to be a Potlander. Very proud.

    • Noble Durham

      Roger’s other occupational canard, selling stock attending TriMet’s “Hooklyn-Sinker Bridge” over the Willamette.

      • Foist a Adam to that folks

        Late breaking muse or attitude ism: Sentiment for naming TriMites Willamette crossover after Donwton Abbey Duniway has been mitigated in fervor for Nelson Mandela who really merited a street name replacement for Victory Blvd.

        • Chairman Ciao

          Hollyworld title for the TriMet Portlandia abridgment over the Willamette: “A Bridge Too Scar” transportation ‘neath it.

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