Streetcars are Returning, in Spite of Bush Administration Opposition

Posted: Jun 04, 2008 12:01 AM
Streetcars are Returning, in Spite of Bush Administration Opposition

I belong to the National Streetcar Coalition, which pushes policies favorable to the return of streetcars throughout the nation. Each month we hold a conference call with member participants who explain what is happening in their communities. This month I was blown away at the level of activity from one end of the country to the other. Portland, Oregon is the poster child for a successful streetcar system. Intersecting with Portland's prolific light-rail system this eight-mile modern streetcar line has attracted over 100 other communities in the USA and even foreign countries which are looking to bring back streetcars.

Despite an extraordinarily well run streetcar line, which has attracted $3.5 billion in stipulated investment which would not have occurred without the streetcar, the George W. Bush Administration refuses to partially fund a new line to the other side of town. Mind you, these investment properties have voted to voluntarily tax themselves to support the operation of the car line. So what is the Bush Administration pushing? So-called bus rapid transit. In fact, despite the legislative history of the small-starts program which was established to fund starter streetcar lines, the Bush Administration Department of Transportation authorities will have none of it. They only fund bus rapid transit. In fact, they have a whole unit limited to promotion of one mode. They do not do this for any other technology. They hold conferences. They have staff that goes on location to push bus rapid transit. They have a web page devoted solely to bus rapid transit. There is only one problem. People don't like to ride buses. They will tolerate riding a bus that feeds a rail line but they really don't buy what the Administration is pushing.

Many communities are funding starter streetcar lines on their own. That is well and good but the elitist "public be damned" attitude of the Bush Administration is reprehensible. The Federal Transit Administrator seems to be reasonably in favor of streetcars. But someone is giving him orders not to fund rail. There is an irony in the current campaign to do away with earmarks. The current law requires Congress to earmark funds for transit projects. If earmarks are abolished, and I certainly am no defender of the earmark practice, should Congress violate the law and not set aside money for transit projects? That presently is the only way rail projects are funded.

There is suspicion of a sort of symbiotic relationship between the Bush Administration and the manufacturers of buses and their component parts. It is hard to comprehend what goes on here. Yes, rail is more expensive to build but it is less costly to operate, so in the long run it pays to have rail. Riders identify with fixed guide-way rail lines. They know rail lines are unlikely to disappear. A bus route can be changed overnight. I have no idea what the next Administration will do about this issue. One never can tell. President Jimmy Carter turned out to be a much more determined opponent of Amtrak than did President Ronald Reagan, who talked of defunding Amtrak but always gave in to the strong pro-Amtrak sentiment in the Congress. None of the candidates for President thus far has been asked about streetcars so we simply don't know how the current controversy will be resolved.

Meanwhile, interest in streetcars is reaching critical mass. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the chief Congressional proponent of streetcars, is optimistic. He believes this is an idea whose time has come. He thinks with so many cities and towns considering restoring streetcars no Presidential Administration would be able to resist this idea in the long run. He is considering introducing a stand-alone bill to fund streetcars. We know President Bush would veto such a bill but we don't know what the others would do. We know that Senator John S. McCain, III has been a fierce opponent of Amtrak but we don't have much clue which way he would go on this issue.

I spent much of my young life going to photograph last runs of streetcar systems. I even ran two charters just before the Milwaukee system was abandoned. Today if I spent my remaining years doing little else I still couldn't get to the openings of all of the streetcar lines under construction. This was a technology which came close to dying out completely in the 1970s. It is difficult to suppress a good idea. Yet I never thought I would live to see this day.