capitol of our country.”
(Photos © J. Maus)
In a show of political support the likes of which I’ve never seen, a host of elected officials were on hand this morning to welcome U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to Portland. They assembled at the base of the Aerial Tram (with tons of bikes parked everywhere) to cheer on Portland’s fast-moving streetcar plans and to unveil a prototype of the first streetcar to be made in America in nearly 60 years.
Speaking to the crowd, LaHood made it clear where he stands:
“I came here today because Portland is the transportation capital of our country, Portland is the green capital of our country, Portland is the streetcar capital of our country, and Portland is, the livable community capital of America!”
(That line went over so well, LaHood repeated it again at the end of his speech.)
LaHood lauded the fact that public transportation has been “part of the DNA here” for decades. “It’s difficult to imagine greater Portland,” he said, “without streetcars, light rail, and buses to take commuters and tourists almost anywhere they need to go.”
It was a day for hearty congratulations and optimism and pats on the back. Rep. Peter DeFazio called federal money set aside for Portland’s streetcar projects, “a great example of a good earmark.”
Governor Ted Kulongoski piled on the green excitement by calling his recently passed Jobs and Transportation Act of 2009 “the greenest” in Oregon’s history (despite the fact that it was roundly criticized by environmental groups, gives only paltry consideration to bicycles and has $900 million worth of highway project earmarks).
Congressman Blumenauer was very excited to have LaHood’s support for streetcar and livable communities. He praised LaHood for being able to figure out in four months, “what the Bush administration couldn’t figure out in four years.”
Also during his speech, Blumenauer said the event, “Celebrates the nexus of how our community has approached livability, transportation, land use and empowering citizens.” He also pointed the adjacent LEED Platinum building and “bicycles all over the place” and said the location of the event “highlights what we’re all about.” (He also referred to George Will as “goofy” for his criticisms of LaHood and Portland).
After the speeches, the dignitaries took a ceremonial first ride in the new streetcar.
I came to this event knowing it wouldn’t offer much in the way of bike news, but I wanted to see first-hand what it’s like for a non-highway transportation mode to garner so much mainstream political attention.
An event like this — only with a bike funding project announcements and a new, “Made in USA” bicycle in place of the streetcar — should be the primary goal of every bike advocacy group in the nation.
I agree with speakers that the event signals a “new dawn” (or more accurately a re-dawn) for America’s transportation future, but I wonder where bikes fit in. It’s growing ever more clear that our historic allegiance to cars and highways is on the wane (slightly), and it’s also very apparent that streetcars and light rail trains are masterfully seizing the opportunity to feast on the federal funding trough in their place.
I have a lot of questions about this enthusiasm for streetcars. At what cost do we reap its reported benefits (construction and ongoing operations are very expensive) relative to costs to aggressively promote bike usage? Will their presence degrade the quality of the bikeway network? What mode — bikes or streetcars — have the highest return on investment? Are streetcars a viable mode of transportation or are they primarily a tool to spur new development? How will bike projects compete against streetcar projects for non-motorized transportation funding?
As the shiny new streetcar rolled down the tracks for the first time, stuffed to the gills with Sec. LaHood and just about every major politician in our region (except for Mayor Adams, who was likely in a City Council meeting), I couldn’t help but notice the irony that there was a major lack of bike parking capacity to service the nearby buildings.
Let’s hope that, in this moment of cheerleading for livable communities and excitement for funding green transportation modes, the interest from politicians to seriously invest in our bikeways doesn’t just roll on by.
— More coverage of today’s event on the Portland Mercury blog.