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Source: The Oregonian (Portland)
Author: RA Fontes
9/17/2012
(Oregon) Guest opinion: Is the new eastside line the beginning of the end for the streetcar?
Original Article

Guest opinion: The Oregonian

PORTLAND - Everything was going the streetcar's way. As a redevelopment tool, it received major boosts from other developer subsidies. The Pearl and South Waterfront barely functioned and ownership was concentrated in few hands. The economy thrived and urban renewal agencies with tax increment financing weren't so controversial. 

As transportation, it offered direct service to Portland State University, local transit's most popular destination. Mostly in the Free Rail Zone with passengers taking easily walkable short rides, it didn't compete directly with TriMet. Portland's Bureau of Transportation and TriMet indulged riders with astoundingly cheap fares averaging about 5 cents while TriMet riders paid around $1. 

Most of those don't apply to the eastside line, but PBOT and TriMet still subsidize ultra-low streetcar fares. 

The streetcar's fare is $1; TriMet's is $2.50. The streetcar's annual pass costs $150; TriMet's: $1,100. For around $2.50 each per year, the tens of thousands who carry PSU or OHSU IDs. enjoy unlimited streetcar rides. The new line's shared alignment with existing bus routes highlights this double standard, especially since streetcars cost much more to operate than buses. The absurdity is undeniable when streetcars break down and are replaced by TriMet buses. Whether riders pay $1 or $2.50 depends on whether the bus has a "streetcar replacement" sign. 

Supporters and critics agree that the streetcar can't make it without disproportionate subsidies. Even with submarket fares and sweetheart deals with PSU and OHSU, few expect eastside ridership to approach the west side's, especially before the loop is completed. That means even more handouts. 

Almost all operating subsidies come from PBOT and TriMet, which can only raise revenue (taxes, parking fees, fares) or cut services. PBOT's new eastside parking meters will pay just part of new streetcar subsidies, and most maintenance programs got cut. TriMet raised short-trip fares by 45 cents and passes by $209. It eliminated another $1.1 million in low-ridership lifeline services while providing streetcar $3.7 million. People throughout the district lost service so that streetcar passengers get extra-cheap rides. 

Few would object to super-cheap or even free streetcar rides if all operating subsidies came from voluntary sources such as local improvement districts, but we're eliminating vital services just to provide artificially low fares. 

Streetcars aren't perfect: Capital costs are many times those of buses. They have their own safety hazards, break down at the slightest anomaly and increase vulnerability to disasters. They're slow and inflexible, and the downtown alignment is relatively inconvenient with inefficient transfers. Buses aren't perfect, either, but nobody's using giveaway fares to shoehorn them in where they don't fit. 

Without more universities or Free Rail Zones, where else can the streetcar thrive? When will TriMet realize that something's inherently wrong with oversubsidizing it to the detriment of TriMet's own services? At what point will Portland's City Council decide that safer streets are more important than artificially boosting streetcar ridership? When will streetcar riders pay their fair share? 

Streetcars have their place -- just not everyplace. 

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RA Fontes lives in Lake Oswego. 
 
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