Streetcar Woes

Portland opened its new east side streetcar line a couple of weeks ago, but the real story is in the Lake Oswego plant that is supposed to be making streetcars to run on the new line. In 2011, the company, United Streetcar, announced that its first streetcars would be several months late and it would only be able to build five streetcars for the price of six–and the company’s president was brazen enough to say, “You’re not getting less. I actually think you’re getting more.”

The company’s streetcars are essentially copies of the first streetcars the city bought from a company in the Czech Republic. The price of the Czech streetcars was $1.9 million apiece (only about six times more than a bus that has more seats). The cost of United Streetcar’s first streetcar? $7 million. If Portland is lucky, it will eventually get five for an average of a little more than $4 million each–but hey, they’re made in the USA (a requirement for federal funding).

Strangely, the city didn’t complain about getting short-changed one streetcar, and it’s response to the delay was to spend more money hiring a company, LTK Engineering Services, to monitor the company making the streetcars, paying it $1.35 million to date. So far, only one of the five streetcars is out on the streets (or, fairly frequently, in the repair shop). To prod United Streetcar into finishing the other four, which are several months behind schedule, the city is about to hand over another $386,000 to LTK.

How does LTK spend that money? It has eight engineers watching over the shoulders of the workers at United Streetcar, for each of whom it bills the city a mere $162 an hour. Don’t worry, says the city; there are plenty of “contingency funds” in the project’s $148.3 million budget to cover this cost.

Who says streetcars aren’t cost-effective? They are pretty cost-effective for LTK, not to mention United Streetcar.

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41 thoughts on “Streetcar Woes

  1. metrosucks

    Who says streetcars aren’t cost-effective? They are pretty cost-effective for LTK, not to mention United Streetcar.

    That’s the whole point of the streetcar scam. It’s obviously not about transportation. It’s about a particular social engineering dogma and the endless back-scratching done in attempts to mold the public into following along with the politicians’ dystopian view of what Portland should really be like in the future.

  2. LazyReader

    Or for a million dollars you could buy an articulated bus with seating for almost 100+, either way they’re both ridiculously expensive. This is governments go broke when you have to pay people to look over their shoulder.

  3. OFP2003

    Well, when people behave irrationally, it could be the objective criteria driving their behavior is **not rational**

    I would bet that it isn’t that people must have things in the streets that aren’t cars, that are so big and heavy but carry fewer people… it’s the design they are after: “Trains” “Streetcars” “Rail Transit” and it’s for emotional reasons: “Now we are a big city!” like the old days when baby boys wore dresses until the day they were big enough to “wear big boy pants”

    ATTENTION BUS DESIGNERS: the solution is to redesign the bus. Electrify the streets with overhead lines (getting rid of the hated exhaust smell) and completely redesign the bus into something cool, really cool, different, really different, not just a paint job.

    FrancisKing Reply:

    ” Electrify the streets with overhead lines (getting rid of the hated exhaust smell)”

    Diesel-electric hybrid buses are cheaper, don’t need the expensive overhead wires, and have massively reduced emissions.

    “and completely redesign the bus into something cool, really cool, different, really different, not just a paint job.”

    Thus? – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FTR_(bus)

    metrosucks Reply:

    Looks pretty cool to me.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Though notice the vehicle branding?

    OFP2003 Reply:

    Cool, but not far enough into the future. Why is there only one door? Why not a door for nearly every seat? You line up with the empty seats while the bus is coming to a stop. The door next to the empty seat you want opens when you wave your smartcard in front of it, then you get on and the door closes and you leave. NO LINES.

  4. Frank

    Don’t really have anything new to add, so at the risk of becoming the new highwayman, I’ll reiterate my points:

    Street cars are incredibly slow. When factoring in wait time, one can walk faster. When I lived in Portland, I used to skateboard the street car line because it was faster (and the new cement was smoother than the other lane.)

    Streetcars are incredibly expensive. The South Lake Union Trolley in Seattle cost something like $8000 a foot. Given ridership, it would be cheaper for the city to provide free electric taxis.

    Streetcars have low occupancy; when I lived near Lake Union, I often drove past the SLUT; each time I was inconvenienced by having to sit through two long light cycles on the Mercer Mess because of the SLUT, I counted passengers; never counted more than ten.

    Street cars don’t go anywhere. The SLUT goes from Westlake Mall to South Lake Union, essentially, the same neighborhood, on the same routes as buses in the same traffic stopped by the same traffic signals.

    For a laugh, read the Yelp reviews of the SLUT.

    metrosucks Reply:

    Frank, don’t worry about “becoming the new highwayman”. Unlike that character, you have cogent, reasonable points that are made in an entirely civilized manner. Rock on.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Though that is kind of a Catch 22 as well.

    Things are practically almost re starting from scratch, it’s not like you can just put in an order at American Car & Foundry for a PCC. So prices for streetcars are artificially higher then what they really should be.

    Also I’ve out walked automobiles at times too.

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    The company’s streetcars are essentially copies of the first streetcars the city bought from a company in the Czech Republic.

    Washington, D.C. purchased a few units from the same Czech company for its yet-to-open lines in the Northeast and Southeast quadrants of the city.

    Details here and here.

    LazyReader Reply:

    Yeah I’ve heard of them. Nevermind the fact that they don’t even have a place to put them. District officials admitted that it would cost $64.5 million to operate the first two lines during their first five years of operation but the city only had revnues to pay for about 58 percent of those costs. The Districts own DOT said a streetcar on the Anacostia Line train would take 10 minutes to travel from one station to the next on its route. Which is slow.

  6. redline

    Slight quibble: United Streetcar, an offshoot of Oregon Iron Works, is located in Clackamas, Oregon.

    I passed a streetcar yesterday, on its new east-side “line” – there were six passengers at 4:30 p.m. Not surprising, as Eric Fruits at PSU has demonstrated that it’s faster to walk than to take the streetcar.

    “Planners” and politicians today fail to grasp one simple concept: in their heyday, streetcars were private enterprises, designed to move people from new developments into the central city and back home again; thus, the Red Electric line into Multnomah Village, the line running to the amusement park atop Council Crest, etc. They were never intended to shuttle people around a six-mile loop in the central city.

  7. prk166

    I’m not sure why the higher price for the street cars says much of anything about streetcars. It would seem to point primarily at the problem with these xenophobic policies.

    the highwayman Reply:

    I agree, protectionism is part of the problem here.

  8. LazyReader

    Most of the streetcars resurgence in popularity is romanticism. The romanticism of antiquated technology. The streetcar seems so fitting for towns to possess. Especially older towns with that grew up with them to begin with. My hometown of Baltimore grew with streetcars. The kind of cities that grew before the advent of the 20th century or the automobile. The Charles Street Trolley is a proposed line running through northern portions of Baltimore. Kittelson & Associates, a consulting firm has been hired by advocates. Envisioning the use of newly built replica-vintage looking rail cars.

    bennett Reply:

    Personally, I agree. And I wish the newer streetcars had more of a nostalgic flair. I don’t want a streetcar that looks like a futuristic passenger train/light-rail vehicle. If we’re gonna do it, I want a trolly!

    the highwayman Reply:

    So wouldn’t that mean that automobiles are about narcissism?

    LazyReader Reply:

    There is such a thing as healthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism projects self confidence in line with reality. Destructive narcissism results in the grandiose and mass transit is nothing short of grandiose scheming.

    bennett Reply:

    I understand what you’re saying, but I have to disagree with the semantics. Narcissism, by definition is “inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity.” The words “inordinate” and “excessive” do not lend themselves to “healthy.” Narcissists lack a perspective on reality. I want to call you out on some selfish Radndian hogwash, but I understand where you’re going. I have seen unhealthy selflessness, though I would argue that selfless acts by and large are good. I do believe that self convenience does not have to come from a narcissistic POV.

    Dan Reply:

    Healthy narcissism projects self confidence in line with reality.

    Using this rhetoric, the ‘reality’ includes all the destructive externalities, acknowledgement of physical reality of resources, and the land-use arrangements that limit choice.

    Hopefully self-confident people are able to overcome destructive self-regarding and authoritarian tendencies to effect change.

    DS

    Frank Reply:

    “I want to call you out on some selfish Radndian hogwash”

    Select “healthy narcissism”; right click; select “search Google for ‘healthy narcissism'”; 0.45 seconds and first result is a Wiki entry on healthy narcissism:

    Some psychoanalysts and writers make a distinction between “healthy narcissism” and “unhealthy narcissism”…the healthy narcissist being someone who has a real sense of self-esteem that can enable them to leave their imprint on the world, but who can also share in the emotional life of others.

    — Simon Crompton, All about me (London 2007) p. 37

    No mention of Rand in the article or the first 100 results from Google. So I have to call you out for your knee-jerk reaction that should have been prevented by two or three seconds of elementary research.

    Again, I’m not a Randian, but the projection of Rand into arguments not based on Rand and a rush to condemn by those who haven’t even read her speaks volumes. This phenomenon should be written into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

    the highwayman Reply:

    I’m not saying there shouldn’t be automobiles, though cities shouldn’t be built only for automobiles.

    There needs to be a mix of modes, Portland once had next to 200 miles of tram line, though Portland also has 4000+ miles of roads too.

    Most of you call your selves libertarian, though you are very conformist and despotic.

    metrosucks Reply:

    You can have all the trains you want. Just pay for them yourself. Car drivers shouldn’t have to pay for your glorified trolleys.

    the highwayman Reply:

    I’m still paying for roads and parking even if I don’t use them. Metrosucks stop complaining for nothing!

  9. bennett

    Frank said: “…the projection of Rand into arguments not based on Rand and a rush to condemn by those who haven’t even read her speaks volumes.”

    BS. It’s called critical thinking. I’m very impressed by your google skills, but it is possible to draw connections based on your own observations. You don’t have to rely on google and wiki to give you your opinion, you can form your own.

    My observation is not exactly a leap of faith. On a blog where most of my opponents espouse Randian ideals (whether or not they consider themselves Randians), I found it interesting that a concept like “healthy narcissism,” was brought into the fray.

    Also, I was blissfully unaware of “healthy narcissism” as a concept, but after reading the wiki entry on it, my opinion has not changed. The concept is bogus (IMHO), despite what the genius who thought we all want to sleep with our mothers says. I would suggest that people that think they are participating in “healthy narcissism,” are in fact assholes who actually practice grandiose narcissism. I also wonder the behavioral traits of people who uphold ideas like “healthy narcissism,” and how likely they are to uphold Randian ideas like radical self-interest, (healthy?) selfishness and weakness associated with selflessness.

    bennett Reply:

    “…but the projection of Rand into arguments not based on Rand and a rush to condemn by those who haven’t even read her speaks volumes. This phenomenon should be written into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

    Sort of like Godwin’s law? Okay, I’ll give that to you. It’s a argument I quickly go to on this blog. But there is a flip side to my argumentation tendencies, one that the planners that participate on this blog are all to familiar with. Fact is, this blog isn’t about transit boondoggles or planning. It’s the communitarian v. radical self-interest battlefield. Posts on wasteful transit projects just get the ball rolling. As the thread continues we eventually get to the larger arguments. It’s the O’Toole Law. ;)

  10. Iced Borscht

    It’s the communitarian v. radical self-interest battlefield.

    Supposing this is true, which I will for a thought experiment, is the communitarian argument on this particular blog well-represented? By you, Bennett, yes, and by some others, yes. But from many other mouths on this blog, the communitarian argument reeks of its own self-interest and ego-padding.

    Frank Reply:

    “But from many other mouths on this blog, the communitarian argument reeks of its own self-interest and ego-padding.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    bennett Reply:

    I also agree. Although I think Dan gets a bad rap. Others, who shall go nameless are not helping us.

    Iced Borscht Reply:

    I don’t dislike Dan, and my comments were not intended as a jab at him.

    I understand that he pisses off a lot of people here, and when I first started posting, he pissed me off too. But I’ve mellowed since those days. I do like how he views a problem from multiple points of inquiry and how he doesn’t back down, even in instances where I strongly disagree with him.

    I use the comments on this blog as an opportunity to learn, regardless of whether I agree with the commenter. In that light, I’ve learned a lot from Randal, Bennett, Dan, Frank, CP and a few others.

  11. Iced Borscht

    But the other reaction I have to your argument, Bennett, is this:

    Here in Portland, many of us are routinely lectured by green/planning/”community” types about the importance of strengthening communities, about the importance of transit in this strengthening process, etc.

    Yet do these lecturing types live in the same lower middle-class, diverse neighborhoods as “radical self-interest” persons as myself? Do they use public transit?

    No, clearly do not. This is obvious on its face, but sometimes the dirty secrets float to the surface, in plain view, so that any shred of doubt is removed:

    http://portlandafoot.org/2012/06/why-trimet-board-members-dont-ride-trimet/

    These types see themselves as qualified to instruct me on being a good citizen? On community stewardship?

    To hell with them.

    bennett Reply:

    It’s a culture in Portland. Portland is the poster child for “green/planning/”community” right or wrong. I understand your disdain for the hypocrisy of those you speak of.

    Every city has their cultural schtick, and Portland’s happens to be planning. It’s hard to argue about Portland when it comes to planning. It’s kind of like using NYC as an example for rail transit. They’re outliers. Most professional planners or ideological communitarians would probably view Portland plans as over the top and in some instances onorous.

    Inevitably I think the argument gets down to where to draw the line. Deep down inside most antiplanners like zoning, separation of certain uses, regulations of form, etc. But these regulations can go too far or can be reactionary and this is where the unintended (but surprisingly predictable) consequences come into play.

    I feel that by and large the individualist/objectivist POV is too absolutist to be realistic in a society (see: collection of people) let alone a city, particularly Portland. We’re all in this together and we all want rules to the game.

    Also, while I don’t think “voting with your feet,” is a particularly realistic concept, it’s hard to imaging why any individualist/objectivist would choose to live in Portland where the overall culture in the city is in direct opposition with their ideology.

    Y’all need to move down here to TX. You’d fit right in and we’d treat you like kin.

    Iced Borscht Reply:

    it’s hard to imaging why any individualist/objectivist would choose to live in Portland where the overall culture in the city is in direct opposition with their ideology.

    You’d actually be surprised at how many libertarians are in Portland. There is a fairly large, unseen number of us.

    Having said that, I landed in Portland almost completely randomly with no intent of staying, and the circumstances that followed (having children, getting married, etc.) kept me here. But political ideology doesn’t affect which way the wind blows or how amazing the Columbia River Gorge looks on any given day.

    There are many, many attractive qualities to this area that transcend political bickering.

    bennett Reply:

    “There are many, many attractive qualities to this area that transcend political bickering.”

    And most of those qualities are not available in TX, a fact that I am painfully aware of.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Portland is also the largest city in Oregon.

    O’Toole hates cities, though he still lives in Oregon be it out in the woods.

  12. Frank

    Not sure where to add this comment, given the new nested comments feature which is buggy at best. Also had to sort through a litany of non sequitur tardbot comments that clutter my rss feed. But here goes:

    First, the Objectivist term is rational self-interest. Bennett, while I respect you and value your contributions, I don’t know if your gaffe is accidental or an appeal to ridicule.

    You think the concept of healthy narcissism, of which we were both unaware, is bogus. Now, based on your disdain for psychological research, I could leap to the assumption that you’re a Scientologist. But I don’t.

    Libertarianism has had many proponents. And many factions. Common to all is the rejection of coercion and the of support for voluntary association. And I’d reframe the “communitarian v. radical self-interest” dichotomy as collectivist v. individualist, individualism being another thread in the libertarian philosophy (except of course for horizontal collectivism of left-leaning libertarians–see the diversity of thought represented by such a simplistic label?)

    So statements by libertarian-leaning commenters here will have echos of Rand. And Jefferson. And Bastiat. And Mises. And Rothbard. And Hayek. And Thoreau. I consider myself anarcho-capitalist, and my arguments echo proponents of the Austrian School. But that doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally echo Rand or Thoreau.

    Ultimately, we all argue political ideology, whether all of us want to admit it. Whether that is some form of libertarianism, or in the case of our opponents here, social democracy, it’s still ideology.

    Perhaps all of us should fill out our profiles and make sure to label our ideology so that we may properly engage in red herrings and ridicule opponents’ exact ideology.

    Or perhaps we could attempt refute the central premise instead of appealing to ridicule.

    Just a suggestion.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Objectivism just means that you have an objective.

    bennett Reply:

    “Bennett, while I respect you and value your contributions, I don’t know if your gaffe is accidental or an appeal to ridicule… Or perhaps we could attempt refute the central premise instead of appealing to ridicule.”

    Touche. Well said and noted.

    bennett Reply:

    “collectivist v. individualist”

    I will use individualist from now on. I do not use the word collectivist anymore due to negative connotations associated with it. I would love to talk about the virtues (and vices) of collectivism, socialism and communism, but when those words are used it’s often difficult to have a rational conversation.

    Seeing as I was using the term “radical self-interest,” it may have come off as a bit two-faced. Again, I will use individualist from now on.

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