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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Portland streetcar is wonderful -- isn't it?

We had an interesting conversation this afternoon with Lynn Horsley, a reporter for the Kansas City Star. She's writing an article about the streetcar that's about to be built in that city's downtown. So far all she's heard are good things about Portland's streetcar system, and she wondered what could possibly go wrong.

We did what we could to tell her, but it was hard to know where to begin. It sounded as though she needed to hear from more Portlanders with a command of the facts and issues surrounding the streetcar. If you're interested in chiming in, her e-mail address is here.

Comments (20)

Did you happen to mention to her how these 'chic' streetcars drain money from essential transit services?

They are cutting transit all over the country but building streetcars to make neighborhoods 'cool'.

It's mass insanity and its going everywhere.

--I wrote this to her. Hope I didn't make any mistakes---

I am an associate of Jack Bogdanski's, and a frequent reader and commentator on his blog. I've recently moved out of the metro area, and am happy that I did, but I still feel qualified to comment on the light rail.

Somehow Portland has mastered the art of branding. As in the Portland Brand. We are seen as awesome and progressive. The best little city in the world and what not. But there are cracks, flaws. Some of those cracks are best highlighted in how they relate to the street car/light rail.

On the surface the idea seems great. Provide more public transportation options for the populace, that's a good thing! Here are some issues that are not discussed by the street car believers.

1. Debt: It's a huge money pit, costing tens of millions of dollars. The city has gone into massive debt to fund it.

2. Developers: Rail lines are permanent fixtures that permanently alter the surrounding property values. So the big real estate developers will throw their money and weight onto the local government to influence the train policy.

3. Corruption: Pretty soon all of that money is corrupting what should be a perfectly open process. Pretty soon the local government is giving tax breaks to develop land near the train tracks. This serves to create demand for the train in that area, so the need for the light rail becomes self fulfilling. Also the incentives to build end up costing money via grants or tax breaks, so the economic boon of a better transit system does not come to fruition, at least not in the form of tax receipts.

4. Buses Are Cut: The train is slow and rides the surface streets. The buses are slow and ride the surface streets. Neither is better than the other, one just costs a hell of a lot more to put in and run. With all the money going to the train bus service starts getting cut, even in areas not serviced by the train.

5. Creep: With all the big money and influence behind expanding the train to other local towns and counties, the corruption gets exported. Milwaukie, a little town just south of Portland, is getting and will pay for a light rail whether they like it or not. The shenanigans the local politicians are using to outwit the electorate is downright criminal.

6. Cars: The light rail blocks traffic, rail lines take up lanes that otherwise would be used for cars. Don't let the hype fool you, the vast majority of working people in Portland still use cars to some extent.

7. Crime: Enforcing ticket buying on the Portland light rail is non-existent, and the drivers of the train are locked away (for their own safety?). So the trains can turn into an unmonitored madhouse. Also, people that would not have otherwise traveled too far from their own messed up little street are now traveling out to the suburbs. This may sound snobbish, even racist, but exporting so called 'inner city' problems to the rest of the city is an issue. Perhaps it's an overblown issue, but crime is so bad on the trains that I will not ride it in the afternoons east of the river. The morning is fine, the riff-raff are not awake then.

In the end we are all left with the question: Why not just expand bus service? It's cheaper, flexible and less corrupting. Spend the money on clean buses if emissions are an issue, laying down permanent rail lines is a loser in all ways. I'm not even sure there is a 'pro' argument to be made anymore.


--I wrote this to her. Hope I didn't make any mistakes---

The reporter was investigating the streetcar, not light rail.

Am I wrong to lump them all together?

It'd be damned embarrassing to have written all of that while wrongly conflating two separate issues.

Hi Jo..

I, for one, do not think it was time wasted since every point except #5 and the last part of #7 (but the ticket part is spot on) applies to the streetcar from my POV...
Cheers, It's Mike

The article below is interesting reading, though I must confess I was a bit dissappointed to read it holds up Portland's version as one of the few "successful" lines...

Reason Magazine: The Streetcar Swindle

I don't think it's two separate issues. It's all fixed-rail transit. The "streetcars" running on the east side look a lot like MAX trains to me.

This is what I sent:

I am a follower of Jack Bogdanki's blog and a small business owner in the Central Eastside Industrial District in Portland, Oregon. I have lived in Portland since 1988, and I have owned a business in Portland since 1995. A new street car line just opened which runs north and south three blocks east of my business. It is my understanding that we will be hit with a Local Improvement District (LID) tax assessment for the installation of this streetcar. Between my wife and I we have approximately 9000 sq. ft. of office and warehouse space, and we are on a lease. This LID assessment will be added onto our lease as part of our NNN cost, and from what I understand, this could be as much as $500 per month added onto our lease payment next year. We have been forced to cut our employee health insurance as well as lay off employees in the past few years due to the lagging economy.

What's the problem with the streetcar? Nobody rides the darn thing! When I commute to and from work I typically see 3 people or less in the passenger compartment. Most people in Portland who I know complain that the streetcar is a waste of time because you have to wait forever for it come around, and when you get on it goes so slow you might as well have walked to wherever you're going. Apparently the new streetcar line is so underfunded that they were forced to put fewer trains in service which will make the wait times even longer. This thing adds absolutely nothing of value to my business or my wife's business. Most of my clients would rather drive, and I pay for three parking spots to make sure that they have a place to park when they get here. The bus line runs down the same street as the streetcar, and it's more efficient in getting people from where they live to our area if they don't happen to own a car or can't get a ride from a family member or friend to their appointment.

In short, the streetcar only serves to create a value added development opportunity for those who have the vast resources and desire to build apartments, condos and the like. Portland has a very interesting political culture where the powers that be tend to get the taxpayers to fund their real estate development ambitions, and the unions go along with it all because they want the construction jobs. Meanwhile the quality of life is impaired because we cut the police budget while we have a burgeoning gang problem in this city, and the mentally ill are committing suicide at an alarming rate while services to their population are being cut as well. The police seem to spend more time rounding up and controlling the mentally ill and homeless than anything else. Our schools are underfunded with an astonishing dropout rate, and the local politicians want to add a $35 annual head tax to fund the arts!

In my opinion the Portland streetcar is an expensive mistake. If you find people in Kansas City holding it up as some sort of example as success, then I think they are being dishonest or need to do their homework. The short term benefits gained by the construction jobs are far outweighed by the burden on the taxpayers.

I like your response Kevin. Very specific. I forgot how slow those things can run.

I remember, back in college, outrunning the downtown street car on a bet. We started at Portland State, and raced to Powell's. My friend rode the car with me jogging down the line. I walked half the time and won handily.

Horsley wrote me this evening to say she has gotten a number of useful and thoughtful comments from readers of this blog. She's grateful, as am I.

The Eastside Streetcar also known as snail rail: A costly but lavish empty tin can that never will pay for its self, rattling down the street gumming up other traffic.

Am I wrong to lump them all together?

Not really. I guess they are pretty much the same on most counts.

Anyone - and I mean ANYONE - that wants to see Portland transit for real - is welcome to join me on my daily adventure aboard TriMet.

You've seen the postcard view and the travel magazine article...I'll show you what the postcard makers are afraid of, and what the travel magazines don't let their own writers see.

K.C.has five times the violent crime rate of Portland. Why does a streetcar in KC sound like a bad idea? After all, this was the home of the guys who shot an elderly jogger dead, just for kicks, at 7am on mother's day this year. Yeah, I'd be chomping at the bit to use public transit there, the locals sound so friendly. Sort of like some Portland locals that shot the opera singer on 205 for kicks some months back.

Sigh. I'm ready to go live on an island.

A September 27 article by Horsley says:

Johnson cited Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City as examples of cities that have provided fare-free streetcar zones.

I guess they didn't get the message that Portland eliminated its fareless area in order to raise revenue.


Supporters envision it will connect residents, downtown workers, suburbanites, tourists and others to the Sprint Center, bars and restaurants in River Market and the Power & Light District, Bartle Hall, hotels and downtown’s other amenities.

They also hope it will lure thousands more residents downtown and bolster the area’s commercial and residential density.

Conversely, critics see it as an expensive and unneeded boondoggle.

Kansas City voters will decide in November whether to fund the construction of the proposed streetcar line there, so there is that, i.e. a public referendum.

It is all coming true in Lake Oswego. Anyone who believes the streetcar idea was put to rest should read the meeting packet for the Planning Commission hearing last night. But not just the stuff they put online, go find the REST of the stuff the planning dept. conveniently forgot to post on the website. We have already had our hands full of Debt, Developers Corruption, and Cut Bus Service. But we have Creep, Congestion, Crime and Cut in city services to look forward to.

Once the big developers have your town in their site, no politician and no local chamber of commerce can resist their golden spell. I have no idea what sparkly dust they use. These guys are professional cons and have been convicted of securities/banking fraud. They didn't change their characters, just their venue, and they still con the same types of people - those who think they are too smart and savvy to be conned.

So Lake Oswego can look forward to nine-story buildings with 100% lot coverage, primarily residential with limited parking in Foothills. I hope people from the city are reading this. NINE stories! No wonder the city didn't post the zoning changes for all to see. And this will be a multimodal mixed-use district MMD so residents won't really need cars! And even though there is only bus service now, they are planning for a streetcar because the density will justify it. All paid for by... The good citizens of LO, aka the ATMs for the developers, Trimet and the city.

To residents of Kansas City: if the streetcar measure passes, start planning an exit strategy. That's what many sane people are doing these days, and people with money have choices and will be packing their bags for saner, more respectful places to live.

To Gaye Harris:

You noted that "K.C.has five times the violent crime rate of Portland."

Actually they both have about the same violent crime rate and both cities are about 75% higher in violent crime rates as the US average.

It is a well believed myth that Portland has a low crime rate. I used to believe this too.

Sadly, the opposite is the case for both property and violent crimes.

Here's part of what I sent to Lynn Horsley:

"I have a perspective on urban renewal which has been the foundation and major funding source for streetcars. It is different than the hyperbole supplied by PDC, CoP, Metro, TriMet and the general media. Even though my career is based on development, change, good design and environmental sensitivity, it is also based on financial prudence and what best serves the majority of citizens. It may now be obvious to you that my perspective is different than what you may be getting. Jack Bogdanski's blog and his posts in most cases follows my thinking on streetcars.

I had the opportunity to speak to the streetcar project manager in Tucson last spring, where similar to Kansas City, it is in the midst of building its first streetcar line. Many Portland bureaus, politicians and private enterprises and individuals that "sell" streetcars throughout the nation and elsewhere were instrumental in selling Tucson their streetcar story. I spent about a half hour giving the true background to the project manager who at first claimed the streetcar created Portland's Pearl District. He didn't realize that urban renewal with numerous subsidies, tax abatements, up-zoning, re-zoning, grants, federal/state dollars were the larger reasons for Pearl's development. He was told the streetcar did it all.

The story is like the Tram story for South Waterfront, and it's streetcar. They like to attach "linchpin" to the streetcar or the tram, like it is the sole key to development. They forget to tell how rezoning, up-zoning where floor area ratio (FAR) increased from 2:1 to 12:1, and building heights increased from 35 feet to 325 feet in South Waterfront. Similar happened in the Pearl. Maybe you have deciphered some of this from discussions with locals and reading Bojack, etc. I hope so."

And I hope Lynn Horsley through all of this feedback tells "the rest of the story".

My source is Wikipedia, sorry. It states PDX has a 3.9 /100k rate of murder or non-negligent homicide, and KC has a rate of 21/100k.

Is Wikipedia lying to us again?


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