• 9 Investigates: Portland streetcar gets mixed reaction from area residents

    By: Peter Daut

    Updated:

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The heated debate over the streetcar project stretches from Charlotte to Raleigh, with Gov. Pat McCrory taking a stand against it last week.

    Channel 9's Peter Daut traveled to Portland, Oregon, a city with its own streetcar line, to find out if the controversy to build it was worth the payoff. 

    Whenever the streetcar passes Kathy Russo's restaurant in downtown Portland, she could not be happier. About every 15 minutes, the car unloads waves of potential customers.

    “We have people that ride the streetcar that will come here over another place,” Russo said.

    Russo believes the streetcar is so vital to her business that she included it in the name. Inside, a digital monitor shows patrons arrival times for each of the 10 cars in the fleet.

    Portland opened the nation's first modern streetcar system a little more than a decade ago with cash from transportation funds and property taxes. The goal was to create downtown development.

    The cars run on a 15-mile system made up of two loops, at a price tag of roughly $20 million per mile.

    But the operating budget is another issue. Money comes from ticket sales and sponsorships, but mainly city, state and federal taxes.

    Officials admit the streetcar has struggled to pay for itself and fell millions of dollars short in its annual budget.

    “So whenever I see one of the streetcars I think, 'Wow, that's really cute, but it's also really expensive,’” said Dr. Eric Fruits with Portland State University. “It's the same thing I would say if I saw someone driving a Bentley. That's a good-looking car, but it's really expensive and I can't afford it.”

    Fruits is one of Portland's biggest streetcar critics. He said it's “slow-moving art” that drains dollars from other needed-projects.

    And he warns that's something taxpayers in Charlotte need to know.

    “That money could have been used for roadway improvements. It could have been used to help the mentally ill. That's all money we could have used for something else, but we committed it to fund the streetcar,” he said.

    A spokeswoman for the streetcar is unfazed by the criticism, even though ridership has dropped in recent years to about 11,000 people a day.

    She said the system led to $4 billion worth of investment near the tracks, including 10,000 housing units.

    “It provided a way for people to live, work and play in the inner city,” streetcar spokeswoman Kay Dannen said. 

    Beyond the cost, the streetcar has irritated advocates for other forms of transportation.

    Two bus lines were re-routed to push streetcar use, even though buses are faster.

    Some riders who said they have no choice but to take the streetcar said it can be undependable.

    “It concerns me that because it's on a track, and if there's any obstruction whatsoever, any kind of breakdown or accident, the whole system goes down,” Barbara Geyer said.

    Still, Russo said her business is proof the streetcar has lived up to its promises, and thinks it can do the same for Charlotte.

    “People who live in Charlotte are a lot like Portlanders. And it's fun, it's energetic, it's sustainable,” she said.

    In the next few years, Portland plans to expand its streetcar line and add several more cars. But whether it pays off remains as unclear there as the fog.

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