A Desire Named Streetcar

Streetcar copyAfter the fetish for renewable energy that’s expensive and intermittent, the greatest fixation of the utopian left is mass transit, especially light rail—a 19th century technology for 21st century mobility needs. (Who says the left isn’t reactionary?) It has long been an embarrassment that the cars for our various light rail systems that taxpayers have been massively subsidizing come mostly from overseas manufacturers.

That’s why one of the items buried in the infamous “stimulus” of 2009 was funding for an American streetcar manufacturing effort, to be built where else: Portland, Oregon. But it has turned into a total bust, as the Washington Post reported yesterday:

Early in President Obama’s first term, transportation secretary Ray LaHood traveled to Portland, Ore., stood before American workers in red, white and blue hard hats and made a pitch for their gleaming back-to-the-future product.

“These are the first streetcars to be manufactured in America in nearly 60 years,” LaHood told the cheering crowd in 2009. “This is the dawn of a new era for public transportation in the United States, a new opportunity to claim ‘Made in America.’ That is a great thing to be able to say!” . . .

Company executives and their patrons greatly overestimated the size of the market they could capture and underestimated the difficulty of starting a homegrown streetcar business from scratch. Executives hoped to sell 10 or 15 of the 8-by-66-foot vehicles each year and create hundreds of new jobs as communities embraced a national streetcar revival. The company’s president at the time, Chandra Brown, set her gaze further. “One day, we can’t wait to be exporting these cars,” she said during another LaHood visit in 2011.

Instead, the company built just 18 streetcars for three customers — the District, Tucson and Portland — and was late delivering them to all three cities. There are no new orders, and the facility built to produce up to 24 streetcars a year is dormant after the last Portland car was shipped out Nov. 21. Some workers have been laid off, others have been reassigned to United Streetcar’s parent company, Oregon Iron Works, which builds bridges and boats.

“We made a significant investment being in the streetcar business, and unfortunately there hasn’t been a marketplace that would justify that investment were we looking at it with the clarity of today,” said Oregon Iron Works President Corey Yraguen.

Or, as LaHood said, “maybe our calculations weren’t right.”

Ya think? (Buried deep in the story, by the way, are details of how the U.S. Dept. of Transportation simply threw out streetcar procurement bids from foreign manufacturers for DC Metro streetcars. “The wrong folks kept winning,” said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), adding that federal officials were “very clear. They wanted Oregon to get the award.”)

At this point, there’s only one thing to do: Cue Portlandia!

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