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Return of the (modern) streetcar - Portland leads the way

Poor Planning - and the motor car - have arguably spoilt most US cities. M. R. TAPLIN examines a West Coast community that is reversing this trend.

The Grand Opening of the Portland Streetcar on 20 July. Car 001 threads its way through the crowds at 6th Ave/Mill St to depart the Urban Center Plaza northbound stop as the second car in a slow procession along the 3.8-km line.

To many Europeans involved with planning and transportation, the words US city, and civilisation, are almost an antithesis, for they spend much of their professional lives trying to steer away from the trends, summed up as sprawl and motorised society, which define most North American urban areas. No doubt the residents of cities such as New Orleans, San Francisco and Washington would hotly contest any slur on their credentials to civilisation, though in each of these the tourism element (plus government in the case of Washington) plays an important part in marking them out from hundreds of other cities across the continent, which, to European eyes at least, have few redeeming features.

American planners and politicians often acknowledge that the motor car and lax planning lie at the heart of their problems, and the far-sighted and politically courageous ones have recognised that good public transport is one of the most powerful weapons in their armoury to tackle the problem. That is why 14 new light rail systems have been built since 1978, and two more are under construction, with many more planned. In this magazine we have often focussed on the north-west city of Portland as coming closest to European norms, for there not only has there been significant investment in high-quality public transport, but politicians have been willing to stick with strict planning zoning, despite all the pressures to the contrary (perhaps the fact that the Oregon vineyards are just down the road helps, for many would argue that wine and civilisation are inextricably linked).

001 loading at the busy 10th and Yamhill stop across the street from the main library, showing the low platform at stops. Confusingly, the name printed on the passenger shelter indicates sponsorship, not location.

Light rail arrived in Portland in 1986, and the east line became an east-west line in 1998, with a north line now under construction, and planning focussing on the south. The system, christened MAX, has been an outstanding success, and now carries 70 000 passengers/day (not including the new Airport branch that opened on 10 September). The revitalised ‘downtown’ with its Fareless Square fare-free zone, is testimony to the ability of transit to boost the economic well-being of the community. And of course to keep those tourists coming in, you ought to offer some heritage experiences, whether it is steam breweries or vintage trams (or in Portland’s case replicas of both).

When MAX was being planned in the 1980s, local businessman Bill Naito persuaded the regional transportation authority Tri-Met to run vintage-style trolleys over the city-centre section, financed not from Tri-Met funds, but from the business community that stood to benefit. A citizen advisory committee, formed in 1990, started looking at options for a Central City Trolley line, separate from MAX, and linking inner-city regeneration zones with the city centre, using newly-built replicas of old-style trams. Those with a good knowledge of local history remembered that much of the area now known as Old Town, with its ornate buildings and criss-crossed by tram tracks, succumbed to the wreckers’ balls in the 1940s to make room for motor traffic on freeways. Ironically this area was derisively called the ‘European part of Portland’.

Skoda 003 southbound on 11th Ave crossing the MAX light rail tracks at Yamhill St on the first day of revenue service. Visible to the left of the tram are two of the three tracks which curve out of MAX’s 11th Avenue terminal, which is now the city-centre terminus of all trips on the new Airport line.

In 1995 Portland Streetcar Incorporated (PSI) was founded in response to the city’s request for bids to design, build and (perhaps) operate the Central City Streetcar. PSI is a unique private, non-profit consortium, composed of local consultancy and design firms, and managed by an advisory board composed of leaders from the business community and developers. The change from Trolley to Streetcar will be noted, for residents and businesses along the planned route requested a change from the replica trams in the original concept to modern low-floor trams. Newly-built replicas could have been nearly as expensive as modern cars, and would have provided less capacity, so project officials embraced this change, considering that it also would make compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act much simpler, eliminating the need to either build high-block sections and ramps at the stops, or build in wheelchair lifts.

Traffic patterns and housing density favoured a line running between the city centre and Northwest Portland as the city’s introduction to the 21st-century streetcar. Factors included population densities running as high as 20 000 residents/square mile and historic heavy transit patronage. And south of the city centre lies Portland State University, with its potential to generate heavy student traffic throughout the day and throughout the week. The north-south routeing through the west end of the city centre was selected as being on 10th and 11th Avenues, and this gives a clue to another feature. Portland Streetcar, as the project was officially renamed in 2000, runs for 3.8 km in each direction, but is often referred to as being a 7.6-km loop, since it follows separate, parallel streets (one or two blocks apart) for virtually its entire length. The reason for this is that the non-segregated street track can mostly be located in the right traffic lane, allowing retention of kerb parking.

Construction of the line started in 1999. As the previous sentence indicates, Portland Streetcar is not a light rail line like MAX (which is mostly on private right-of-way or reservation, and has its own segregated lanes when it runs through the city centre streets), but a tramway, sharing lanes with other traffic over nearly its entire length. For the most part trams will have to obey the same traffic signals as other traffic, and there is no pre-emption. Traffic calming may not have entered the American vocabulary, but the new trams effectively do just that as they run and stop in the street. Track construction costs were kept down by specifying a much shallower track slab than would be required for 49-tonne LRVs: 310-mm deep instead of the conventional 465 mm, using specially-ordered girder rail only 130-mm high in place of the standard 180-mm rail used on US light rail systems. This reduced significantly the amount of relocation of previously-existing underground utility lines needed.

Siemens SD660 LRV 220 laying over at 11th Ave/Yamhill St on one of two MAX short-turn trips using this facility prior to the opening of the Airport line. In the background Portland Streetcar 003 is passing southbound.

The entire project cost USD 56.9 million, including the purchase of seven low-floor trams for USD 14.8 million. Funding came from various local sources, but primarily 20-year municipal bonds backed by a rate increase at city-owned multi-storey car parks in the central area (and also at parking meters), and a ‘Local Improvement District’ (LID) tax on properties located along or near the line. Of the 1781 property owners covered by the line’s first phase, only eight objected at a public inquiry on the subject of the proposed LID, and their property represented only 2.7% of the land area of the LID. Operating costs are met directly from city funds, and the available budget has had an effect on the initial frequency that is being offered (15 minutes) compared with that planned (12 minutes). The annual operating cost is predicted to be USD 2.4 million, and for the first five years Tri-Met has agreed to pay two thirds of this (capped at USD 1.6 million/year), in exchange for the city spending USD 6.5 million over the same period on traffic-signal modifications at several locations to give transit pre-emption. There is no federal funding involved.

Portland Streetcar (PS) is a project of the city council, not the transit agency Tri-Met. The city managed its construction, provided most of the funding, and will manage its operation. PS is a division within the city’s Office of Transportation. However city officials wisely decided not to try to create a whole new workforce to run the line, and instead have contracted with Tri-Met to provide the operators and maintenance personnel, taking advantage of the training those people had already received for MAX. 13 operators, three superintendents and two mechanics have been assigned to Tri-Met’s PS unit. City employees are the part-time General Manager (Vicky Diede, who was the CCS/PS project manager throughout the planning and construction), and the full-time Manager of Operations and Safety (originally Mike Carroll, but now Lenore DeLuisa) and Manager of Maintenance (Gary Cooper). PSI provides certain management functions on a part-time basis, including Manager of Community Relations (Kay Dannen) and Chief Operating Officer (Rick Gustafson). Their employer is local consultant Shiels-Obletz-Johnsen, the largest component of PSI, which has managed much of the planning and construction of the system.

Portland Streetcar map

The line connects NW 23rd Ave in Northwest Portland, a thriving retail district and home to one of the city’s largest hospitals (Good Samaritan), with Portland State University (terminus SW 4th Ave). On the way it runs north-and-south through the west end of the city centre, on 10th and 11th Avenues, where city planners expect the tramway to generate substantial new development. Such development is already evident in the Pearl District and newly-created River District, immediately north of the city centre, where old industrial development and abandoned rail freight yards are giving way to new apartment buildings and condominiums. One of the latter, a seven-storey, 139-unit development due to open this year, is even named Streetcar Lofts. The tramway’s potential to influence development in areas around the fringes of the city centre was the strongest reason for its promotion. Before the 1997 agreement between the city and Hoyt Street Properties the area was zoned for 15 units per acre, but with the tramway confirmed the deal pushed the density up to 131 units/acre.

The line’s steepest grade is 8.65%, in the block of 11th Avenue between the two MAX tracks (the steepest gradient on MAX is 7%). The entire width of this one short section of street had to be regraded to a steeper slope as part of the PS construction, in order to get the crossings of PS and MAX tracks on the level, to avoid uneven wear on the complex and expensive specialwork at these two intersections. The line also features a right-angle crossing with an active freight spur serving the BridgePort brewery, on Northrup Street at 13th Avenue.

Most maintenance will be carried out at a small new depot that has been built at NW 16th Avenue, underneath an elevated section of the I-405 freeway between Northrup and Lovejoy Streets. A single curve at 10th and Morrison connects the tramway with MAX, and this means it will be possible for the trams to reach Tri-Met’s Ruby Junction workshop for exceptional maintenance or repair.

The depot accommodates the seven low-floor trams being purchased from Skoda in the Czech Republic (001-007). The initial batch of five cars, ordered in early 1999, were all delivered in spring 2001, but 006 and 007 are not expected to arrive until July 2002, having been ordered later (in October 2000 and February 2001 respectively). The basic design is known as the Astra, first built as a prototype in 1996/7, but with 27 cars since delivered to Plzen, Ostrava and Olomouc. The Portland cars are the first double-ended variant, and bear the model number 10T. Skoda is better-known for its railway locomotives and trolleybuses, but saw a gap in the market after the introduction of the market economy in the Czech Republic, and the dire effect that had on what was the world’s largest tram builder, Tatra, which quickly lost its way under a welter of reorganisations and management failures. Skoda had a previous history of small-scale tramcar production from 1927-40, but after the war the planned economy decreed that all production should be concentrated at Tatra.

Although Skoda is building the cars, the company is actually only a sub-contractor to Inekon, another Czech company, which holds the contract with Portland. In fact most of the mechanical design work for the Astra was undertaken by Inekon subsidiary Kolejova Doprava, while Skoda concentrated on the electrical design. In order to meet the USA’s tougher standards for crashworthiness, Skoda had to redesign the underframe and add reinforcement around the operators cab. Traction control equipment comes from Elin, braking gear from Knorr and air conditioning is by Thermo King.

Car 004 ascending Portland’s steepest gradient, 8.65% on 11th Avenue, between the two parallel streets carrying MAX tracks. The white logo shows this car is sponsored by Portland General Electric.

The Skoda Astra double-articulated design, with bogies under the two outer carbody sections and a suspended centre section, is 20.13-m long and 2.46-m wide, weighing 28.8 tonnes. There are seats for 30 in a 2+1 layout. Two 90-kW ac motors per truck can produce a top speed of 70 km/h, but the cars are governed to 50 km/h. There are three doors on each side, one narrow doorway located in the high-floor section above the trucks and two wider doorways in the low-floor section that features along 70% of the car. One of the latter on each side is equipped with a bridgeplate that extends for use by mobility-impaired passengers at any of the simple low-platform stops, which are located every two or three blocks. The trams are not equipped for multiple-unit operation, but do have limited-use couplers hidden behind a removable panel at each end, allowing full mechanical and limited electrical coupling, for towing or pushing.

By any standards it is impressive that the system was able to open just two months after most of the fleet was delivered, and nonetheless avoid any major service disruptions due to vehicle teething troubles. This is due in part to the fact that by avoiding use of any Federal funds, ‘Buy America’ regulations did not come into play, and PS was able to purchase trams built entirely in the Czech Republic, but there was also a concerted effort by project officials to keep to a simple and low-maintenance design.

Each of the seven cars carries a different combination of livery colours, albeit to a common pattern and all sharing a light blue stripe along the top of the skirt (changing to white around the car ends). The city has decided against any exterior advertising, but has recruited one ‘sponsor’ per car from among local businesses and institutions, allowing the sponsor’s name and logo to be applied on the side in modest-sized lettering. By the opening sponsors signed up were 001, Portland State University; 002, Hoyt Street Realty; 003, Powell’s Books; 004, Portland General Electric.

Fares are the same as on the Tri-Met system, and all tickets, transfers and passes issued by one system will be accepted by the other. As on MAX, PS will use an honour fare system to speed boarding. However the ticket vending machines (which require USD 1.25 in coins) and validators (for stamping pre-purchased tickets), supplied by the Czech company Microelectronika, are located on the cars rather than at stops, as this required fewer machines. Also, the City has agreed that PS will honour Tri-Met’s city centre Fareless Square area, which covers about two-thirds of the PS line, thus giving most passengers a free ride. There is a Portland Streetcar-only annual pass for USD 50, sold at the depot and university, as well as by Tri-Met at their Pioneer Square outlet. But as long as the line generates the sort of attractive, high-density, transit-friendly new development the city desires, officials are not overly concerned about its low 'farebox recovery ratio' (the percentage of operating costs covered by fares). Daily patronage before the opening was projected to be about 4500, but after three weeks 6000-8000 people a day have been riding and even Sunday ridership has hit 5000. No doubt this will drop as the novelty wears off.

After the opening three days of 20-22 July (see our September news), normal PS service is from 06.00 weekdays, 08.00 weekends, until 23.00 (extended to 00.30 on Friday and Saturday nights). Service uses four cars during the daytime on Monday-Friday and three at most other times. The scheduled round-trip running time is generally 50 minutes, with a 10-minute layover, so four cars produces a 15-minute headway and three cars a 20-minute headway. In practice the higher than expected patronage has been eating into the layover periods (all taken at or near the southern terminus). The current operations budget is insufficient to permit scheduling a fifth car, so the plans for a 10- or 12-minute weekday service are on indefinite hold at present.

Portland’s River District was just a derelict railway freight yard three years ago, but is undergoing an impressive transformation into a residential district since the tramway was approved. The newly-erected colourful towers are intended to resemble American-Indian totem poles. With the Fremont Bridge in the distance, Gomaco Vintage Trolley 514 approaches the neat stop on NW 11th Ave at Johnson St. on 28th July.

City of Portland officials like to boast that PS is ‘the first modern streetcar system built in the US in 50 years’, but of course they are not counting heritage systems using old or old-style cars such as Memphis and Kenosha. But the four Gomaco-built Brill replicas that have been running on a section of MAX since late 1991 do have a role on PS. The city determined that it would need them as spares and later decided to operate them in scheduled service on the new line every weekend, replacing one Skoda-worked duty. In January the Tri-Met board approved transferring ownership of 513 and 514 to the city for use on PS. Tri-Met retains ownership of 511-512, which run on the 3.2-km City Centre-Lloyd Center section of MAX on most Sundays from March-December. Two modifications have been made to 513/4 for use on PS, the addition of exterior mirrors and turn signals (which of course were not a feature on the original 1904 design, and have been done without on MAX, with its high degree of segregation). A Gomaco car operates on PS on Saturdays (09.30-17.30) and Sundays (10.30-18.30). The VT cars are completely non-wheelchair accessible on the PS line, so there are no plans to expand their use. They also require a two-man crew, so cannot easily be called upon at short notice.

All Vintage Trolley departures on the PS are scheduled on the hour from the southern terminus, and at 25 minutes past the hour from 23rd Avenue/Marshall Street, where no layover is scheduled or allowed, since trams are blocking traffic on a very busy two-lane street when they are at that stop. If an unforeseen event, such as damage to the overhead, forces temporary suspension of the tram operation, the city has an agreement with Tri-Met to provide buses and drivers, on short notice if necessary, to work a replacement service.

For a few months there are sections of Portland Streetcar which appear to be on private right-of-way, but before long this will be the intersection of 10th Avenue and Northrup Street, looking south towards the city centre. Meanwhile the new apartments are springing up to create the River District. This was a test run on 19th. April with extended bridgeplate and exposed coupler visible on 001.

Several extensions to the PS system are proposed if the first line proves successful. One of these already appears likely to proceed to construction within the next two years, although the start of preliminary engineering has been delayed several times. This would take the existing line about 1 km eastwards from its southern end, to RiverPlace, a developing district of residential buildings, shops and offices located on the west bank of the Willamette River, at the south-east corner of the city centre. It would follow Harrison St to Naito Parkway (formerly Front Ave) and then descend a hill via an as yet-to-be-built new right-of-way to reach the RiverPlace district. Although the city is still working on funding sources for the estimated USD 13.5 million construction cost, the seventh Skoda car, ordered on 28 February, is needed only for this extension (ordering 007 in time to allow it to be built at the same time as 006 enabled the city to negotiate a price of USD 1.863 million that was lower than would have been offered for separate construction slots).

On Moody Avenue by RiverPlace this extension will cross the tracks of the Willamette Shore Trolley, the excursion service operated by the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society, that uses vintage trams powered by generator trailers on the 11.2-km former Southern Pacific rail line to Lake Oswego (see There is even a possibility that the PS might be extended over all or part of this line. In June 2001, Tri-Met announced that its budget for 2001/2 included USD 50 000 for a preliminary study of introducing commuter rail service on the Portland-Lake Oswego line, including various options.

Other PS extensions proposed, but yet to be studied, include two routes that would cross lifting bridges to reach the city’s east side from the city centre, one across the 1910 Hawthorne Bridge to Hawthorne Blvd, or (more likely) turning north to serve the Central Eastside Industrial District, the other crossing the Broadway Bridge (1913) to the redeveloping Rose Quarter and then running east along Broadway/Weidler.

An interior view of a Skoda Astra tram for Portland Streetcar, showing the grey ticket-vending machine, the yellow ticket validators, the steps to the high-floor section, the overhead next-stop signs and temporary display panels with historic photos of Portland and Czech cities.

More than a century ago Portland’s first tramways were laid out to secure the opening of largely-vacant land tracts to residential development. The route of the new Portland Streetcar largely reverses this historic pattern, by serving the densest city neighbourhood and including popular trip generators all along its route. However it is also designed to fulfil the historic function, by encouraging residential development in the Pearl District and opening up the old railway yards into the River District. It shows that going back in time is not necessarily a backward step. Until now the US urban rail transit revival has focussed on light rail. The tramway is different: smaller, cheaper to build and operate, designed to share traffic lanes with cars, it functions less as a commuter vehicle and more as an urban circulator, connecting the city centre with near neighbourhoods, and spreading the economic revival to a wider arc. ‘We see Portland as America’s most European city’ said Charlie Hales, the city transportation commissioner. ‘Portland-on-Rhine’ said the headline in Willamette Week for 25 July. Which is where this article started.

For further information visit and The author is grateful to Steve Morgan for considerable assistance with this article, and to ‘The Oregonian’ newspaper for its excellent reports on Portland Streetcar.

All photos by Steve Morgan.

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