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Alternatively known as the Central City Streetcar, a streetcar line currently running in downtown Portland, Oregon. Construction began in March, 1999, and operations began 20 July, 2001. The 3.8km (2.4mi) line will run from Northwest Portland through the Pearl and River Districts, through downtown to Portland State University. The idea of a circulator to move people about the Central City area first originated in the 1972 Downtown Plan. The streetcars will complement and connect into the existing bus and light rail (MAX) lines that currently run through downtown.

The line runs from the Trendy-third shopping district and Good Samaritan Hospital in NW Portland east along NW Lovejoy Street, under the I-405 freeway where the main maintenance facility is located, into the Pearl and River districts. It then turns south onto 11th Av, past the Brewery Blocks development and Powell's Books, across Burnside into downtown, by the Multnomah County Central Library, and on to SW Market Street. It then turns east again to go a few blocks to 5th avenue, where it turns south and goes two blocks. The line then turns northwest to go through the middle of the block on which Portland State University Urban Center is located, then turns west onto SW Mill St. and proceeds through the PSU campus. It then turns north on 10th Av., travels along that to NW Northrup St. where it turns west to travel to NW 23rd Av, turns south and travels two blocks to NW Lovejoy to complete the loop.

The route has 32 handicapped-accessible stops, with 2 potential future stops identified. Stops are every 2 to 3 blocks along the route. Streetcars run from 6 am to Midnight daily, arriving approximately every 10 minutes. fares are the same as TriMet's, and TriMet tickets and transfers will be accepted. Additionally, Streetcar-only annual passes are available for $50. Much of the line (the entire section south of NW Irving street) is within Fareless Square, and thus requires no fares to be paid.

The streetcar vehicles were manufactured by Skoda Plzen of the Czech Republic. They each have 30 seats and a capacity of 150 passengers in sardine mode, are air-conditioned, and feature low floors for quick and easy boarding for those in wheelchairs. Currently five cars are in service, and two more are anticipated in early 2002. The cars feature a bright color scheme, with each car featuring two of the following colors: red, blue, orange, green, teal.

The total cost of the streetcar line was $42 million, approximately 20% of which ($8.4 million) went directly to constructing the complex intersection with the MAX Light Rail line at SW 10th and 11th avenues and Morrison and Yamhill streets. The streetcar is funded by increased parking fines, a local improvement district, and from the City of Portland's General Fund.

The streetcar provides the inner neighborhoods of NW Portland and the Pearl and River Districts with a fast, convenient transportation alternative, where only mediocre bus services were previously found. Additionally, it connects the underdeveloped West End of downtown to transit, and provide easier access to such landmarks as PSU and Powell's Books. It is hoped that the streetcar line will encourage Transit-oriented development (TOD) in the budding Pearl and River districts. And the line will generally improve mobility in the city and provide a test case to be studied before further streetcar lines are installed. The line will soon be extended south to the South Waterfront (formerly known as North Macadam neighborhood, a brownfield (polluted formerly industrial wasteland) where a major clean-up and high-density housing and retail development are planned. A 0.6 mile extension east to the Riverplace area just north of the South Waterfront area is scheduled to open on March 11, 2005, and construction of another extension 0.6 mile south to SW Gibbs Street in the South Waterfront neighborhood has begun, with opening scheduled for July 2006. The line will connect to the Portland Aerial Tram, which is planned to connect South Waterfront with OHSU in the West Hills along SW Gibbs Street.

It is my opinion that, due to the high ridership and traffic congestion along the route, that a streetcar line should be built extending from Downtown across Hawthorne Bridge along SE Hawthorne Blvd to Mount Tabor, along the current 14 bus line. The outer segment of the 14 along SE 50th Av. and SE Foster Road to SE 94th Av. could be served by express busses, or perhaps later have streetcar tracks extended all the way out in a second phase of the project. The busses along this route are often quite crowded and could benefit from the increased capacity of streetcar vehicles, and the narrow width and fixed route could eschew the current problem of busses on Hawthorne taking up both lanes and thus causing congestion. Based on the costs of the current streetcar project, I estimate that each phase would cost a mere $35 million.


More information on the streetcar, including maps and photos, can be found at http://www.portlandstreetcar.org/

I did not realize until reading the above that the Streetcar had been in Portland for over a decade. In my mind, Portland is divided into "Old Portland", the Portland I grew up in as a teenager, the Portland that was grungy in places and smelled like a brewery. And then there is "New Portland", the Portland that was full of shiny new toys and affluent creative class types sipping wine outside of restaurants. But at this point, the "New Portland" is over a decade old, although I still think of its features (such as the Streetcar) as new innovations.

While me grumbling about my past might not seem that relevant to a discussion of Portland's transit options, it is actually quite relevant.

Other than the general change in the demographics of Portland, which could fit under the general title of gentrification, there has been many changes to Portland's transit infrastructure since 2001, when the Portland Streetcar first opened.

In the past decade, Portland doubled the reach of its light rail system and added a commuter rail route. This means there is now three different types of train operated by Tri-Met.

During all of this, the Streetcar line has also expanded. In 2006, along with the opening of the Aerial Tramway, the Streetcar was extended to meet up with it, in the South Waterfront, which was also promised to be a developing area. And recently, in September of 2012, the Streetcar was extended into Portland's central eastside.

The Central Eastside needs some explanation as well. It was traditionally a warehouse and light industrial district that paralleled downtown Portland, along the railroad tracks on the east side of the Willamette River. It was, by Portland standards, a seedy looking place, and there was little of interest for tourists, or for locals. Even after other areas of Portland, such as the The Pearl District started gentrifying, the inner southeast industrial district remained resolutely itself. But by 2012, the boutiques and wine bars had finally crossed the river, and the central eastside was becoming gentrified.

The Streetcar's route along the Eastside starts when it branches off from the Downtown line in The Pearl, crosses the Broadway Bridge, goes by Lloyd Center, and then follows Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard for three or four miles, ending at OMSI. The route parallels the Downtown Streetcar line, has about as many stops, and runs for about as long. The point of the Downtown Streetcar line has a lot to do with taking shoppers between retail outlets, and so I don't know if that will transfer as well to the less retail-friendly, and less densely populated east side.

Which is where my initial observation of the changes in Portland comes in: while the Streetcar has been in operation for over ten years, I have always got the feeling that it is more meant as an amenity for suburbanites who come to shop and experience some "urban" culture than as a necessary part of Portland's transit plan. So bringing the streetcar line across the river has more to do with trying to establish the Central Eastside as a hip shopping and dining district than it does with being a coherent part of a transit strategy.

However, whether the expanded Portland Streetcar will be successful or not is something we have yet to see.

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