DOT Portland

LaHood Implies Portland Streetcar Loop Will Receive Stimulus Funds, Points to City as Model

Portland Eastside Extension MapConstruction-ready project heralds new federal government interest in promoting streetcar service

Portland’s downtown streetcar has become a model for using transit to encourage dense development in the inner areas of an American city. Recently, the city has begun planning for the extension of the service across the Willamette River to the east side of the city, allowing streetcars to make a full loop around the city center. The total 3.3-mile project cost is $147 million, $75 million of which are expected from the federal government. Construction would begin later this year and open for service in Fall 2011.

At a press conference last week, Ray LaHood said thatWe’re really launching the livable communities program as a way to say to all Americans, ‘We want to transform transportation and get people thinking about getting out of their cars’… Streetcars are going to be a priority, certainly, as a part of livable communities… We’re going to be making some announcements about streetcars very soon,” mentioning Portland specifically as a model, and implying that he would be awarding some of the stimulus fund’s $750 million for New Starts projects to the streetcar loop project. He’ll announce his decision about the project later this week.

LaHood’s comments represent a significant change from the policy statements of Bush Administration DOT Secretary Mary Peters, who repeatedly shunned streetcar projects in favor of proposals for bus rapid transit lines. They demonstrate that the FTA will be taking the lead in encouraging streetcar projects in cities that are excited to build them, but incapable at the moment to fund them. And they show a real interest in pushing city livability through transit enhancements, rather than simply using a cost-effectiveness calculation to “show” that BRT is cheaper and therefore “better.”

A good day for livable city and streetcar advocates.

Image above: Portland Streetcar Loop Plan, from Portland Streetcar

15 replies on “LaHood Implies Portland Streetcar Loop Will Receive Stimulus Funds, Points to City as Model”

This is huge good news for those of us who like streetcars. And I love them, probably from spending too much time in Amsterdam.

The best thing about streetcars coming to American cities is that they can be built quickly and affordably.

It says Portland’s new streetcar line will be operating by the end of 2011. Well, allow some slippage and they should be running long before the end of Mike Bloomberg’s Third Term in January 2015. His $2 billion tunnel to the Convention Center and the train yards will probably still be a hole in the ground in 2015, and maybe still a hole in the ground in 2020 or 2025. We will be lucky if Phase I of the Second Ave Subway Project we all love to hate will be finished by 2020.

Meanwhile we could run a streetcar down York Avenue to serve the big medical and educational institutions along that corridor.

Another line across 125th St. would connect the new Columbia Univ. campus on the far west end to various subway lines, the Metro North station, and the Upper East Side.

And while we all grow old waiting for the Second Avenue subway to be extended all the way downtown, a streetcar line on Second or First Ave could be finished before we get a new Mayor.

Using the crude rule of thumb that one mile of NYC streetcar line would cost $100 million compared to $1 billion for a subway, I’m looking at 20 miles of streetcars for the same price of the one-station extension to the #7 Flushing line alone.

Now that is bang for the buck, or for two billion bucks.

I agree that streetcars are very very useful. However, it seems that a subway is more useful for HUGE cities like NYC rather than a streetcar. The entire street can still be opened up to traffic with a large train being underground carrying 1000s a day. I still think subway is better for NYC.
I don’t have facts, just personal opinion. It seems to carry many more people, and in a city of… what is it? 13 million?… that is very helpful.


Huge cities like New York need more than one transportation option to create a reliable, comprehensive network. While yes, New York’s subway carries a massive volume of passengers, it is mostly in a north-south direction.

Streetcars providing east-west options would allow for better connectivity, and help in the reclamation of New York’s streets for pedestrians.

But more on topic, this is an incredible gesture by LaHood and should be a good sign to cities around the country that the fed supports streetcars and understands the impacts they have on land use. I certainly underestimated LaHood, I hope he keeps pleasantly surprising me.


its too bad more cities in the US havent built modern streetcars. i mean portland’s streetcar line is 8 years old in july and is about to start on its second line and what other cities have “modern streetcars”?… seattle and to a degree tacoma. every city has studied the portland streetcar line and ways to build one it their city but they never get far enough to actually build and operate one.

as for streetcar itself, you do not want a streetcar in NYC, not if by streetcar you mean the skoda inekon cars running in-street traffic with the basic stops. NYC needs subway and if not then at least a light rail system on the heavier side. in-street traffic and lots of stops make the streetcar very slow.

as the planners call the streetcar in portland… “development oriented transit”

Great news from LaHood. We’re planning a modern streetcar network in Fort Worth, Texas, and could use the help! Ours will be one of the largest in the country when built.

Currently, things are in the design phase. We just received $1.6 million in funds from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which will be matched by $400k from the city of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, to bring on a consultant to take us from the current proposal to a real, concrete detailed design:

We recently got the Fort Worth Streetcar added to the region’s Mobility 2030 transportation plan, so that it’s presented alongside the various commuter & light rail projects going on here and will be eligible for federal funding. There’s also a map of the project here:

For the curious, I’ve also done a Google Earth-based “virtual tour” of the system here:

Why do you say, “reclaim” NYC streets for pedestrians. NY has the most people I see walking on the street than any city I’ve ever been to. More than D.C., Atlanta, Philly, Chicago, all that. Just curious. Do you mean like even more than they have now?

However, I do agree with what you’re saying. I didn’t know that the majority of NYC’s subway ran in a N to S direction. Some type of connection would be wonderful. Maybe a combo of street car lines and some more E to W subway lines? A compromise is always best in my opinion

I would recommend having a look at and looking at the New York section. You’re right, New York is an incredible city for pedestrians, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done.

Also check out this post by Yonah himself about the merits of a streetcar on 42nd st.

Focusing on only one transportation method limits our ability to tackle the transportation issues that cities face today. It will take a combination of all modes, from bikes to subways to provide the clean, efficient transportation solution that New York deserves.


Manhattan Island is about 13 miles long and a couple of miles narrow, iirc (no, I didnt google the facts).

The subway lines were built to carry people from the residential areas uptown (Upper East and Upper East Sides, Harlem, Washington Heights) and later from the Bronx to where the jobs were on the docks and in the factories in what is now trendy SoHo. Even as FIRE became the city’s largest employer, that is, Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate, employment centers remained far downtown around Wall Street, or in Midtown around Grand Central and Penn Station, so the north-south subway lines still work well.

The stubs we have of east-west subways in Manhattan are just two or three stations on lines heading east and into Queens. The main crosstown streets all have bus routes, 34th St, 42nd, 57th, etc.

The way the Commissioner’s Plan gave the city short n-s blocks and long e-w blocks means that local bus stops are usually three blocks apart going n-s on the avenues, and at every corner on the crosstown streets. Once you understand how this works, you will realize that streetcars could do everything that the buses do but better, more energy efficient, higher ridership, longer life for the equipment, etc.

We used to have a complete streetcar system on top of and complementary to the subways. The streetcar tracks were removed to speed us auto traffic, a huge mistake of course.

Building new subways to go e-w would cost at least $1 billion per mile, and maybe more. They would have to go deep under the existing n-s subways, making them much harder to reach from the street — two sets of stairs or escalators, twice the hassle going down and coming up. But streetcars would work perfectly at street level.

And if streetcars would crowd some cars out of the center city, all the better. Please leave your car at home when you come to NYC. I don’t own one, and I don’t want to make room in my life for yours. Take transit, or bike, or walk, like a New Yorker. When you get to Manhattan, you ain’t in Kansas any more. : – )

And BTW we are trying to reclaim the streets for pedestrians, but we have a long way to go. When the city was reconfigured in the 1920s and 30s to make room for more and more cars, the ‘park’ in the middle of Park Avenue was cut in half, for example. Sidewalks on streets were cut back to make room for more lanes of traffic. Noise and danger on the streets became the norm. But now we are trying to make this a better place for the people who live here. After all, more than half the households in NYC do not own a car at all, so at least half the streets should belong to us.

Woody: Second Avenue Subway offers a relatively easy tie-in, because it’s intended to turn under 125th and stop at 125th and Lex. It’ll be relatively simple to extend it to connect with the other lines that cross 125th.

Streetcars will be less effective, because they will only provide local transit and streetcar-subway connections. It will not do much for people who live in Washington Heights and the parts of Central and West Harlem north of 125th. A subway will allow a double transfer. As well, streetcars will get stuck in traffic, which is especially severe on Manhattan’s crosstown streets; a subway won’t. Even on Uptown streets, walking is barely slower than crosstown traffic in rush hour.

Although this subway will have to be deeper than the north-south lines, it will not be deeper than the L or the 7. The 7 runs 50 feet below ground, and yet it is amply used. The IND lines cross under older subway lines as well, and yet their transfer stations – Columbus Circle, Herald Square, 53rd/Lex – all see heavy traffic. The same will be true for a subway under 125th Street. Besides, since the subway will be built fresh, it’ll be easy to include elevators; the ADA mandates it anyway for accessibility.

As Kirk mentioned above, for the 42nd street project should in my opinion happen. And similar projects along the the way.

All this “this or that” in the transit world is why things never get done.

I am very happy Portland is expanding. I’d never live there due the environment they allow, but the fact that they are so transit oriented deserved to be supported.

As for NYC, the 2nd ave subway should be supported. People love to throw numbers around to say ‘see, my project is better than yours’ all the time.

Well digging is expensive. I wish it were cheaper. But the benefit of a subway once built is that it doesnt often deal with traffic. And this one in particular will help keep the Lex lines at least slightly less crowded. Although I suspect it will be more like building new lanes of highway where more users come out of no where to pack up the new capacity. All the more reason to get it build.

Having multiple options and modes is what it is all about.

But having a car is NOT needed and to be honest the only ones I know who drive in the city are repair technicians for various companies and those that are too self entitled by their own fat head.


Look at 125 Street again. It’s almost a busway today, and obviously ripe for switching from tires to rails.

But first let me say, I can remember (roughly 1970 when I voted for a bond issue to pay for it) when the planned Second Avenue Subway was going to connect under the Harlem River to two or three subway lines in the Bronx. The current plans that you say show it curving to head west under 125 are a MAJOR retreat.

It is easy to picture a streetcar running along 125. It could very economically dead-end to serve the new campus that Columbia Univ will be putting up on the land it owns and is grabbing west of Broadway. Or it could fork when it neared the Hudson River. One brach could run for 10 or 12 blocks through or under Riverside Park.

The Amtrak line to Albany runs in cut-and-cover tunnels and trenches from 34th St. to the Bronx, so I think we could squeeze in a streetcar track as well.

A streetcar station, if that is not a contradiction in terms, could tunnel two short blocks under the hill known as Morningside Heights to stop under the 116th St station on the #1 IRT Broadway line at the main gate of Columbia’s main campus. With a set of escalators, elevators and lots of stairs, the terminal on this streetcar spur would connect the two campuses and beyond. Indeed, the elevators and escalators to a deep station might open at the western end onto the Park, which in this upper section is underused, being very difficult to access because of the bluff and the many steps involved.

Another branch could head north from 125 Street to at least 135th, perhaps to the carbarn. There’s empty space near the, uh, the State Park on top of the sewerage treatment plant. That way the streetcar could link the State Park to the Central Harlem community. Again, a streetcar station might be tunneled under the hill here known as Hamilton Heights, to serve the City College campus and the vibrant surrounding community. The tunnel could be pushed through heading east back into Central Harlem, and run along 135th St. (or 145th?) to Harlem Hospital, and down upper Fifth Ave. or Madison or whatever to 125 St and loop around again.

I love streetcars, and this would give us two lines for the price of one short tunnel..

Now, as for how to serve Washington Heights, well, I dunno. I used to live in Washington Heights and I never had the slightest desire to go to the Upper East Side. When I ride my bike up there, it seems to me that most of the Heights acts like it is West Bronx. I’d look for a streetcar going over the river and east on Fordham Road. That looks like the traffic flow and two-boro shopping corridor.

But now that we are in the Bronx, let’s get back to the Second Avenue Subway. Oh, yes. It was going to connect to the #6 line from Pelham Bay that is the local train down Lexington Ave on the East Side and the #2 from Wakefield that goes through Harlem and down Broadway on the West Side.

If you agree to stub the Second Avenue at 125 St because there isn’t enough money to take it to the Bronx, I understand.

But if you turn around and say, let’s take the Second Avenue line all across 125th, are you doing that INSTEAD OF any connection to the Bronx?

Granted, since the grand plans shown in maps before we voted that bond issue almost 40 years ago, half the Bronx burned down, populations and employment patterns have changed, and those trains may not be as crowded as they used to be coming from the Bronx.

But there’s wonderful open and underused space in the Bronx. I could imagine its population taking off 10 or 20 years from now — or starting to grow the day they start the tunnel to connect the borough to the Second Avenue line. Of course, the line under construction does not carry four tracks, so it could be there’s never going to be a connection to the Bronx. RIP.

Woody –
Tthe Second Avenue Subway is being designed so that it can continue west under 125th Street and north into the Bronx – in other words, so that it would have two branches. Phase II of the line, which would go from 96th to 125th Streets, would curve onto 125th heading west so that its station would be about under the Metro-North stop, but a spur would be constructed continuing north on 2nd Avenue in case a Bronx extension is chosen as well.

The subway lines in the Bronx are dramatically under capacity. The B/D sees far less use than it did in the 1950s, at which time there was also an El a few blocks to the east. The 6 has empty seats until it reaches Manhattan, since its capacity is limited by demand on the Upper East Side rather than the East Bronx. Given that, it’s unlikely another subway will create a population boom.

Conversely, Harlem is already undergoing a population boom, and has problems with east-west connectivity. Yes, there’s a busway, but it shares ROW with cars. There are plans for BRT on 125th going down 2nd and up 1st, which will connect to far more than your streetcar. It will likely flop because it’s in the nature of buses, but that’s not an argument for streetcars, which are really electrified buses that can’t overtake slow cars.

A subway with multiple splits is not going to happen. Operations will get too complicated and headways too long to make much sense, leaving aside cost considerations. A streetcar-subway is even less likely to happen, since the streetcar has no room to enter Morningside Park.

There’s no room for streetcar tracks along the NYCRR, I don’t think. There might be room if you start deconstructing the Henry Hudson Parkway… but let’s not go there.

Sorry, Alon, I’m still unconvinced that a subway under 1-2-5 Street is worth a few billion dollars.

O.K., I can see that planners could want it to go 2nd Ave over to the Metro North commuter train station at Park (a.k.a. 4th Ave). God forbid that suburbanites should have to walk two full blocks from a train station to a subway station. They won’t do it. So let the 2nd Ave subway stub-end under Park.

Alas, even then, it will have to be costly deep tunnel, not easy cut-and-cover, to get under the existing Lexington Ave line (running under what is in effect 3 1/2 Ave).

What is the ratio, do you know? I forget. But I know deep tunneling costs substantially more than cut-and-cover construction, like 50% more or even worse. That presents the choice question, do we want a mile of deep tunnel line here or a mile and half or more of cut-and-cover line over there, in Queens perhaps?

So you’d need to dig the tunnel a few feet under the # 4, 5, and 6 line while continuing to run those trains 24/7. No, not a cheap or easy two blocks of sub-subway to build, not at all.

“Relatively simple to extend it to connect with the other lines that cross 125th.”

Not so simple. Again, it would have to be dug deep under the existing Lenox Ave line carrying the #3 and 4 trains, while keeping that line open.

And that stretch is treacherous geology. The Lenox line essentially runs in a former filled-in stream bed, and the on-going struggle is to keep the existing subway from leaking and floating off its watery foundations. It wasn’t that long ago that the line had to be extensively repaired, ‘reconstructed’ some described it, to cope with the most unfavorable geology. Now dig twice as deep under 1-2-5 Street? How much to pay for that?

That will get you to the 8th Ave IND line carrying the A ,B, C, and D trains under St Nicholas (sort of 8 1/2 Ave at this point).
Was it one of the links that led me to a comment that a connection to these lines would be easy here, and allow trains to run up to Washington Heights and the Bronx.

Ummn. O.K. Then your e-w line under 1-2-5 would need to be part of the station at St. Nicholas at the same time it was turning from e-w to n-s to join the IND line. Well, a little awkward, but there does seem to be plenty of capacity on the IND line. That’s the one nearest to my apt, :-( , and it’s a long wait between trains.

So would that e-w 1-2-5 St subway, after branching off and heading further uptown, also continue to connect to the Broadway #1 line a few blocks to the west?

At least that stretch would not have to be deep tunnel. It could be cut-and-cover from St. Nick to the coming Columbia Univ campus west of Broadway. Then elevators would connect that #1 line station on the viaduct with the 1-2-5 subway far below.

“Streetcars will be less effective, because they will only provide local transit and streetcar-subway connections. It will not do much for people who live in Washington Heights … A subway will allow a double transfer.”

Granted. I concede the point. I’m just not sure that the ethnic employment patterns mean that many people living in Washington Heights are trying to get to the Upper East Side. If they are trying to get to anything south of 63rd St, which is high rise office and heavily commercial East Midtown, they can go to Times Square and transfer. If they are going to their jobs at Upper East Side apartment buildings, a streetcar on 1-2-5 and a subway under 2nd would be much better than what they have got now. I’m just not sure how many transit users are heading that way.

“Streetcars will be less effective, because they will … not do much for people in the parts of Central and West Harlem north of 125th. A subway will allow a double transfer.”

Not exactly. I took your proposal and doubled the tracks: Let’s run streetcars across 1-2-5 AND 135th St, too.

I can connect them on the western end with a deep tunnel stretching all of 3 full e-w city blocks. Then on the east side, the streetcar could run down Madison Ave to 1-2-5 and feed the Second Ave Subway there. This becomes a single transfer, rather than your double transfer, for Central Harlem residents.

“Streetcars will get stuck in traffic, which is especially severe on Manhattan’s crosstown streets; a subway won’t.”

It looks to me like our Transportation Commish is working hard to get traffic under control. Tolls would help quickly, but there are other ways. In Harlem, better police enforcement of double-parked cars would get the buses moving faster. Maybe a few few blocks on 1-2-5 could be made street-car only. The pedestrian traffic certainly justifies much wider sidewalks than now, and then there are the vendors, part of the local culture.

“Even on Uptown streets, walking is barely slower than crosstown traffic in rush hour.”

Ah, all the more reason to widen the sidewalks!

Of course, streetcars have faster acceleration than buses. They usually get about 10% more riders than buses. And they would probably get more respect from drivers on 1-2-5 than buses do.

“This subway will … not be deeper than the L or the 7. The 7 runs 50 feet below ground, and yet it is amply used.”

In what universe? To get from Grand Central to Times Square, everyone takes the Shuttle and no one takes the #7. The #7 Flushing train is used e-w by people coming from Queens, and their final destination is Times-Square-8th Ave at 42nd. But Manhattanites do not use the #7 to get from East Midtown to West Midtown or vice versa.

I never use the L-line, and since I don’t know anything about it, I’ll refrain.

“The IND lines cross under older subway lines as well …” Yes, and they were built in part as make-work projects during the First Great Depression by the richest city in the country. It is not clear that in the Second Great Depression we will be able to repeat that scale of spending.

As I’m sure you know, every transportation project competes with every other project for funds. So it is useful, as a first step, to look at the map and imagine what improvements could be made. The next step is costing them out, and then comparing them to see where we can get the biggest bang for our always limited bucks.

I thank this blog for raising the issue of better east-west transit on Harlem’s main street. But I recoil at the likely cost of a subway and I look to streetcars as a quick-to-build, cheap, and imperfect substitute.


A bit more. You say, “A streetcar-subway is even less likely to happen, since the streetcar has no room to enter Morningside Park.
There’s no room for streetcar tracks along the NYCRR, I don’t think. There might be room if you start deconstructing the Henry Hudson Parkway… but let’s not go there.”

I go there fairly often, riding my bike from the entrance to Riverside Park up to 1-2-5 St and the Fairway Market a few blocks north of there.

During the summer I often ride on up from 1-2-5 Street north through Riverside Park. The bike path is in good condition for miles and miles. You can get to the Little Red Light House under the George Washington Bridge, and remain within half a block of the train tracks the entire distance.

So there is plenty of room for streetcar lines in this n-s alignment. Some tracks could run in waste space (parkland of rocks and woods unreachable on foot due to the cut carrying the tracks). Some could tuck under the viaducts that carry the Henry Hudson or Riverside Drive in its upper reaches.

But I’m mostly interested in the short stretch from 1-2-5 to 135th St. Plenty of space under the Riverside Drive viaduct and beyond, to the parking lot for city vehicles between the sewer treatment plant and the train tracks. I want to use that to get a streetcar under 135th St and City college.

Take another look at punching under the campus and 135th St in Hamilton Heights. Now City College is somewhat isolated from the rest of Harlem. It is fairly well connected to what we might call the Upper-Upper West Side, from Morningside Heights to Hamilton Heights to Washington Heights and Inwood along the Broadway spine of the #1 train. If we put a short e-w streetcar tunnel under 135th St, we could put a station under the Broadway line and connect to that. Many elevators, burt worth it.

I’m proposing an American Pre-Metro. The Europeans build lots of pre-metros, mostly street running cars, some separated tracks, and bits of tunnels in the downtown or other congested areas. Often they start with pre-metro systems and gradually put more and more of it underground to evolve into full metro.

I want to start pre-metro in a Loop route going across 1-2-5, up to 135th and tunnel under the Heights, then back to street running across 135th St, down Madison to the Metro North station and 1-2-5 Street.

When money becomes easy to get, then I’ll support putting more of the streetcar line underground. But I want to start with getting rails on the ground a.s.a.p.

On reflection, I decided that pushing south to 116th and Broadway thru Riverside Park is not good use of money. To connect the existing Columbia campus with the new one to be built just 10 or 12 blocks north, we already have the #1 train and buses.

You did remind me that another access to the existing Columbia Univ campus could be from the east and Morningside Park. But I think I would not go that way either. I was a student at Columbia during the riots of 1968, which were inflamed by the proposal to build a gym for Columbia in part of West Harlem’s public park.

But a streetcar along 116th St heading east of Morningside Park could make sense. That street becomes a dense commercial corridor between 8th Ave and 5th, and again east of the Metro North viaduct, from Lexington to 2nd Ave or maybe 1st Ave.

As vacant lots and abandoned buildings give way to new high-rise apartments and gentrification, that major street could be well served by a streetcar line.

Now I’m looking at streetcars on 116th, 1-2-5, and across 135th. That has the makings of a system. One loop goes along 1-2-5, turns north, punches under the Heights, runs on 135th and back to 1-2-5. The other runs along 116th and up to 1-2-5 Street at either end. That gives double the number of streetcars in the core stretch from the train station east of Madison Ave. It could turn off to 116th Street and go down Manhattan Ave or Morningside Drive, then go into East Harlem before turning north to 1-2-5 Street.

One advantage of overlapping loops could be to share the use of one carbarn. It would also provide a single transfer n-s ride from 135th to 116th.

Such a system could make Harlem the first neighborhood served by a streetcar system since the old tracks were tore up to make way for more cars many decades ago.

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