New Streetcar Route Serves Eliot

The Loop Streetcar testing on NE Broadway. Photo courtesy Portland Streetcar Inc.

To those who missed the Grand Opening on September 22-23, and are otherwise unaware of it, by the time you read this the Portland Streetcar should be alive, reasonably well, and operating on the southern fringe of Eliot.

The new route, called the Loop, begins at Portland State University, travels north through downtown, and crosses the Broadway Bridge. From there it proceeds along North Broadway and North and Northeast Weidler streets, down Seventh Avenue, west on Oregon Street to the Oregon Convention Center, and south on Northeast and Southeast Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The return route is along Northeast and Southeast Grand Avenue and Northeast Broadway. It will hopefully become a true loop in 2015 when the new Willamette River bridge is completed; currently Portland Streetcar is $7.4 million short of the funds to make the connection from OMSI to the bridge. The streetcar continues to operate its older west side route from Northwest 23rd Avenue to Southwest Lowell Street in the South Waterfront, giving downtown residents greater service.

Of course downtowners no longer have the free streetcar use they had been accustomed to. Starting in September, Portland Streetcar Inc. and TriMet (which runs the car on contract with the non-profit) instituted the following fare system: $1 to ride the streetcar system for two hours; $2.50 to ride the streetcar and any TriMet facility – bus or light rail – for two hours, switching at will; $5 to ride any sort of mass transit all day. There are also Honored Citizen fares for the elderly for $1.60, youth fares for $1, and monthly and yearly passes at reduced rates. These can be purchased at Safeway or the Lloyd District Transportation Management Association office at 700 N.E. Multnomah St.

At the least, the new streetcar gives residents more transit options. Fortunately, it doesn’t come at the expense of service we already have; earlier plans to terminate Bus Line 6 at the Oregon Convention Center and force riders to transfer to MAX or streetcar were shelved when TriMet decided that the proposed changes would cause too many inconveniences for passengers on one of their best-used lines. Critics say that streetcars are slower than other transit vehicles; unlike MAX, they don’t have their own right of way, so congestion slows them up, and unlike buses they can’t steer around obstacles in the road. However, transit advocates say that despite this they tend to attract more ridership.

Or at least they hope so. Budget crunches have hit streetcar operations in the same way they have other public services, and the budget for the streetcar only allows service on the east side every 18 minutes. (Optimally, it would be every 12.) Portland Streetcar officials hope to increase the frequency if ridership brings in greater fare box revenue, but they are in a chicken and egg conundrum; the infrequent service works against picking up increased ridership.

Proponents also say that speed and ridership isn’t the whole point of the streetcar; when there is permanent public investment of this nature, adjacent private development goes up bigger and faster than it would otherwise. Not everyone in Eliot would consider this an undiluted plus; the land to the north of Broadway in Eliot contains zoning that would allow buildings up to 125 feet high. Still, it could be argued, perhaps this is better than the vacant lots and auto dealerships that dot the street now.

Rosey or not, the future is here. Hop aboard.