The Oregonian: Transportation Secretary Watches as ‘Made in USA’ Streetcar Makes Debut

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by Joe Brugger, The Oregonian, July 1, 2009

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Oregon on Wednesday to tout metro Portland’s mass transit innovations and lavish praise on the first U.S.-made streetcar in nearly 60 years.

He told the state’s congressional delegates that the region’s commitment to rail transit will lure more federal money, generate good-paying local jobs and spur economic growth.

United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works Inc., unveiled its first streetcar, which will be deployed in a few years on a new line connecting the Pearl District and the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry.

“Portland’s commitment to public transportation and its visionary streetcar system has made it one of the most livable, sustainable and economically vibrant cities in America,” LaHood said.

LaHood’s first visit to Portland as a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet was intended to underscore the administration’s commitment to mass transit and walkable, mixed-use real estate development across the nation. It also comes as Congress and LaHood haggle over a six-year transportation bill that could provide federal money for streetcar construction, and potential United Streetcar customers.

Also on Wednesday, the Portland Bureau of Transportation started a 45-day comment period on a plan for 16.8 miles of streetcar lines in the near future, and 41.1 more miles of other streetcar corridors in coming decades.

After a morning pep rally at a South Waterfront streetcar stop, LaHood toured United Streetcar’s Clackamas factory and hunkered down in a balmy warehouse to talk mass transit policy with about 30 local policymakers, union leaders and rail industry suppliers.

The secretary got an earful of pointed complaints about how federal mass transit policies actually produce costly delays in light rail and streetcar development.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, wrote a program called Small Starts that was intended to provide federal money for streetcars, but the Bush administration slanted implementation to favor bus projects. Unlike highways and bridges, light rail and streetcar projects are held to strict cost-effectiveness standards that Blumenauer says bear little resemblance to reality.

Former Portland City Council member Charlie Hales took a job at national engineering firm HDR Inc. to help spread streetcars across the nation, but federal reviews have thwarted projects. That has left cities like Portland, Seattle and Tucson to raise local money to build streetcar lines.

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