Jamie Francis, The OregonianThe Portland Streetcar crosses Southwest Jefferson Street at 11th Avenue.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood awarded $75 million in federal money Thursday to expand Portland's streetcar system, a decision that elated local officials who have long supported the stalled project and signaled a new national embrace of urban transit.
The federal government's money and blessing removes the last and most stubborn barrier to expanding the line east of the Willamette River and unleashes an already approved pot of $55 million from local governments and another $20 million from state lottery bonds.
The expansion means jobs -- not only for construction to expand the streetcar system by three miles and 18 stations, but also for manufacturing the streetcars, which will be built by United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, in Clackamas.
The new loop is expected to begin service in 2011.
In announcing the money Thursday, LaHood lauded the design and purpose of a project that had been repeatedly blocked by the Bush administration. In the new administration, LaHood said, Portland can be a model for other cities moving to create or expand mass transit.
"Portland has done an outstanding job," he said, noting the city's integration of streetcars, buses and rail. "As a result, Portland is one of America's most livable and sustainable cities with a good plan for managing economic growth and development."
The federal decision was not surprising, as President Barack Obama has spoken favorably of mass transit and LaHood reiterated that position in a meeting with reporters recently.
But supporters of the Portland expansion as well as transit advocates nationally said that making the announcement so early in the new administration and allowing the Portland project to leap over other projects sends an unmistakable message of federal support for transit.
The commitment of federal dollars will allow the Streetcar Loop Project to expand east across the Broadway Bridge, connecting the Lloyd District, the central east side and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
The line will then cross a new bridge to connect with the existing system. Construction on the 3.3-mile extension is estimated to cost about $77 million, out of a total project cost of $147 million.
Blumenauer, who has been a prime congressional advocate for the expansion, said it will add to Portland's quality of life but is even more important amid the state's sinking economy.
"It's going to be a tremendous economic shot in the arm for Oregon, putting over 1,200 people to work," Blumenauer said. "And I think it is an opportunity for us to start a new American streetcar industry with Portland as its capital."
He said representatives from more than two dozen cities have come to Portland to learn about the streetcar network. If those projects go forward, he said, it could mean more orders for United Streetcar, the only manufacturer of streetcars in the country.
The fledgling company was launched with the help of a $4 million grant that DeFazio inserted as an earmark in the 2005 federal transportation bill. United Streetcar is working with Skoda, a partner in the Czech Republic, on a prototype streetcar for Portland.
The new loop means an order for 16 new streetcars, Portland Mayor Sam Adams said in a statement praising the federal decision.
The federal money comes from the Small Starts program, designed by Blumenauer. Congress directed the federal bureaucracy to give streetcar proposals credit not only for moving people efficiently but also for spurring growth nearby in the form of restaurants, shops, apartments and condominiums. Bus routes, which can easily change, do not show such nearby development, Portland planners say.
In the past, the Federal Transit Administration had said the streetcar project did not meet a crucial test of cost-effectiveness, intended to ensure that tax dollars are wisely spent.
LaHood said the reversal behind his announcement is the result of a new philosophy about transit that arrived with the Obama administration. "This became a priority when this administration came into office," he said.
"We decided that the concept of livable communities is something that we really want to expand on, and part of that is developing modes of transportation where people do not have to get into their car every time they want to go to the drugstore or the grocery store, or their doctor's appointment."
Wyden and DeFazio, both Democrats, were more direct.
"The real answer is, elections matter," Wyden said. "The priorities are different now, and they are very much more in tune with the needs of the people of Portland."
DeFazio agreed. "The Bush administration had set up a black box test that no streetcar proposal would have ever been able to pass," he said. "They were not following the law, and this administration is."