Streetcars Made in the U.S.A.


American streetcar manufacturer Oregon Iron Works turned to European company Skoda to get ideas for its new 10 T3 Streetcar Prototype, which will be open to the public this summer. Photo by United Streetcar.

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made his appearance at the formal unveiling of an American-made streetcar — the first to be manufactured in the United States in nearly 60 years.

United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, developed the light rail vehicle at a local factory in compliance with the Federal Transit Administration’s “Buy America” requirement that any vehicle purchased with federal funds has at least a 60 percent domestic content and undergoes final assembly in the United States. According to Rail magazine, United Streetcar’s vehicle contains 70 percent domestic content. (Read more about the history of modern streetcars in America here.)

United Streetcar President Chandra Brown said, “We see a market for this modern streetcar, as more and more cities look to fight congestion and have rail play a role in local economic development.”

As Portland attempts to reinvigorate the urban transit industry in Oregon, I’m reminded of another idea about “how to fix the world,” proposed in The Atlantic: “Train Detroit“:

The city that was once part of FDR’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” for its part in retooling auto plants to make World War II tanks and bombers, has easily a dozen empty auto plants that could be making train engines and train cars.

Of course, railroads helping to rescue Detroit would be sweet irony. It was General Motors, after all—in cahoots with a number of other companies—that set out to cripple mass transit in America, including the electric streetcars that once trundled through Detroit and Flint.

Sec. LaHood seems to think it’d be an easy idea. “Take what you’ve down here in Portland and try to replicate it around America,” he said, according to The Oregonian. “It’s not that complicated.”

But are streetcars a waste of money?

According to KATU.com:

The City of Portland spends $3 million a year operating streetcars and is planning to pay about $15 million for five more streetcars that will service the new eastside streetcar line. It’s a money losing venture but planners say urban development makes up for it a hundred times over.

As far as TheCityFix is concerned, the more transit options, the better. In the words of Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Robert Puentes: “You can waste a lot of money on a stupid transit project if you don’t think it through, but if it’s done correctly, it can be transformative. It’s mostly about driving development and revitalizing commercial corridors and providing options for travel.” (The Dallas Morning News.)

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