PORTLAND – Later this year, TriMet will send the last two of Portland's four old-timey street trolleys to St. Louis. When it does, downtown Portland will lose a local icon and a little piece of its streetcar history. TriMet, which owns the streetcars, said in an era of cutbacks, it's unavoidable. Critics say "you'll regret it."
The trolleys have been clanking through downtown for more than 20 years. While the City of Portland is gearing up to pay up to at least $1 million for a new streetcar for its own rail system, TriMet said it just doesn't have the resources to run what are essentially tourist attractions.
Critics, however, believe transit bosses just want to get rid of the little red streetcars. Either way, it's clear the cars will soon leave the station.
An overlooked icon
The trolleys have adorned everything from postcards to refrigerator magnets. They were part of efforts to revitalize downtown Portland that date back to the 1970s.
The red and cream colored trolleys, with their wooden windows and doors, and bumpers that invite passengers to "See Portland from Council Crest," have rambled their way through downtown since 1991.
In a city known for its love of public transit and nostalgia, the news met with disappointment from some streetcar riders.
"I'm a little saddened by that," said 46-year-old Robert Nissley while riding one of Portland's modern streetcars. "They were a recognizable icon."
Portland State University student Hannah Stewart, 20, didn't even know the trolleys existed.
"It would have been fun to ride them," she said while taking the streetcar to class. "It would have added to the whole hipster vibe of the city."
TriMet said that with the new MAX Orange Line, due to open in 2015, the agency doesn't have the room to run the trolleys anymore and that they'll have a better home in St. Louis.
"They only run for eight days a year," said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. "As the system gets more complex, it gets harder to fit them in."
While the city of San Francisco operates a fleet of old streetcars and Seattle ponders reviving its historic trolley, TriMet, buffeted by budget shortfalls and service cuts, says it can't be in the trolley business anymore.
TriMet plans to give St. Louis a 10-year lease on the two cars for $80,000. That city has been struggling to build a new old-fashioned streetcar loopto help revitalize one of its commercial districts.
A brand-new trolley would cost $1.25 million, according to its manufacturer Gomaco of Iowa.
"I'm not sure if TriMet has ever really appreciated the ambiance that they brought [to downtown]" said Bill Failing. "They are a transit agency and efficiency is their priority."
Failing is a former radio station owner, and his group Portland Vintage Trolley helped bring the cars to Portland 23 years ago. Failing hopes the lease to St. Louis will help preserve the cars. He also helped put together a deal that transferred two others to Lake Oswego.
Neal Berlin, a long time TriMet employee and former trolley motorman, said both TriMet and Portland Streetcar would rather be rid of the little rolling landmarks.
"The vintage trolley has suffered from benign neglect and malicious indifference," said Berlin. "The powers that be hate them. It's like trying to disown your past."
Part of history, if not really historic
In the 1970s, local businessmen including real estate magnate Bill Naito wanted to help revitalize Portland's sagging downtown. In 1987 they formed Portland Vintage Trolley with the idea of running old cars on the newly installed MAX tracks.
According to Rod Cox of Willamette Shore Trolley, Naito even bought a handful of old streetcars from Portugal to get the system up and running.
TriMet eventually bought reproduction cars and put them into service running from the central library to Lloyd Center.
"They were extremely popular when they ran," Failing said. "Zell's sponsored one, McCormick and Schmick's sponsored one. They were embraced by merchants and downtown people."
But as TriMet's interurban rail system added new vehicles, track space in downtown became increasingly hard to come by. Two cars were handed off to the Portland Streetcar system, but they too stopped running in 2005. Those cars were shipped off to Lake Oswego in 2013.
By 2011, the remaining two TriMet trolleys were operating as few as eight times a year. Then, on Dec. 11 of last year, the TriMet board voted to lease the cars to St. Louis.
"Transferring them to St. Louis will put them in daily use on a new heritage streetcar line," said Fetsch. "They will be the centerpiece of the city's efforts to revitalize The Loop business district. If someone else can make better use of them, that's exciting."
Victims of success?
Trolley advocates agree that the trolleys have lacked downtown business support for years.
"As soon as Bill Naito died, things went into the tank," Berlin said. ""He's the man that saved and restored Old Town. That's what this is about."
By the time of Naito's death in 1996 his vision of a revitalized downtown was well on its way to being realized.
That done, Neal believes TriMet was largely left with dwindling resources and a tourist attraction that the business community didn't really seem to want.
"It takes two people to run each car," said Berlin. "There's no money to maintain and run them."
Streetcars coming and going
Ironically, the City of Portland is shopping for a new vehicle of its own. When TriMet's bridge across the Willamette is done in 2015, Portland Streetcar's eight-mile 'Central Loop' will need to add an additional vehicle to its fleet.
According to Portland Vintage Trolley, transferring these two cars from TriMet to the city was never really discussed.
"People have suggested using them in the past," said Julie Gustafson with Portland Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit that runs the system. ""They could be run along 10th and 11th on the weekends."
Given that, trolleys would need mechanical upgrades and a retrofit to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act in order to go into regular service. Gomaco estimates an ADA upgrade alone would cost $400,000 for each car.
TriMet and Julie Gustafson directed KGW to speak with PSI Executive Director Rick Gustafson, Julie's father, about the issue. Rick Gustafson did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Julie Gustafson said the city is prepared to pay at least $1 million for a single streetcar built by Clackamas County-based United Streetcar. Reports suggest officials could spend as much as $2.3 million for such a car.
Gustafson said United Streetcar would sell the machine at a steep discount.
In 2009, the city put in an initial order to United for six streetcars, but after renegotiations and a series of setbacks, the company wound up delivering only five, the last arriving a year behind schedule.
Fetsch said TriMet doesn't hate the trolleys.
"We've had them for decades," Fetsch said. "If someone else can make better use of them; that's exciting."
Leaving the station
Failing, for one, is happy that the city and TriMet supported the trolleys for so long. He believes the cars will have a good home in St. Louis and looks forward to seeing the remaining two in Lake Oswego.
In 2013, Vintage Trolley leased the two trolleys it owns to the City of Lake Oswego. Those cars were in bad need of repairs and are being painstakingly restored by the group Willamette Shore Trolley.
Starting in the spring of 2014, Willamette Shore hopes to restart a scenic passenger service on the six miles of track that stretch from Lake Oswego to South Portland. The route had been in use between 1987 and 2010. It was recently slated for a Portland Streetcar extension until community opposition in Lake Oswego and Dunethorpe scuttled the plans in 2012.
Failing said he's happy Lake Oswego will keep the little red car chugging along. But he wishes some cars could stay closer to home.
"The vintage trolley goes better in a downtown core," Failing said. "I think it's appropriate to want to have that be part of the downtown system somehow."
While Failing thinks the trolleys might return from St. Louis after their 10-year lease is up. Berlin is less optimistic.
"Once they're gone, they won't come back," he said. ""People will not realize what they've lost, until it's lost."
The trolleys are next scheduled to run on the Sundays closest to Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. TriMet expects the vehicles will be shipped to St. Louis by mid-summer.