Mayor Charlie Hales found himself playing a very familiar role during a slightly awkward council discussion today on what seemed like a mysterious new expense in Portland's streetcar contract with TriMet: chief booster for the city's troubled East Side extension.
After it was finally explained why the contract is climbing from $1,244,950 to $2,089,816—to pay for operator training, through available contingency cash, and hopefully paid back through federal grants—Hales first found himself defending the arrangement.
"This is an accounting transaction," he said.
Then, after listening to some strong skepticism of the project from Commissioner Nick Fish—who went through the litany of woes facing the street car extension, including funding issues, low ridership, mechanical delays, and "charitably," cars running "at less than full occupancy"—Hales mounted a sales pitch that must've felt familiar.
Hales, after all, helped push for Portland's original streetcar, which opened in 2001. And he spent the decade or so afterward working for HDR Inc., selling other cities on the intertwined forces of streetcar lines and dense development.
"This is a success story," he said, touting the "American-made" streetcar-manufacturing industry that local company Oregon Iron Works is building from scratch. "It's a requirement [for federal grants] and it's a risk. And that's the reason we have to be vigilant and do careful oversight even while we're innovating."
He also quoted Machiavelli, saying any new system earns the "enmity and opposition of those who don't benefit" while receiving the "lukewarm support" from those that do.
Next up is fully completing connections from the downtown streetcar lines to the East Side line (they're already joined at the Broadway Bridge) through the new TriMet bridge going up near OMSI. Hales was rather bullish about what that would mean.
"I don't think we'll have a problem with empty vehicles," he said, possibly to imagined patriotic marching music. "We'll have a problem with not enough vehicles."
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