President Obama’s new Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, is in Portland today to take a test ride on the first made-in-the-U.S.A. streetcar in 58 years. Make that Made in Oregon.
It’s part of a big brouhaha to commemorate the launch of the $75 million streetcar extension funded by the stimulus package. I have to admit I’m no fan of political pomp, but this is a ceremony with some serious substance behind it. Oregon reps tried and failed for years to get the Bush Administration to back the streetcar extension, only to lose out to the usual pile-up of highway projects. This very welcome policy reversal will create manufacturing jobs not only in Clackamas, where seven new streetcars will be built, but also at other local companies that will feed into a new regional production chain that could with luck grow into something resembling the Freightliner economy we are losing.
About a half-dozen public officials are climbing aboard for the ride, which is fitting since the deal is publicly financed. But maximum credit really should go to Chandra Brown, the hard-charging president of United Streetcar.
Full disclosure here: I knew Chandra long before she became a big-time player in the business community and one of the sharpest lobbyists in the state. She was my wife’s housemate before I moved to Portland, and she was one of the first people I met in Oregon. This is a woman who knows how to throw a heck of a party. She also has a knack for getting along with everybody. It’s been interesting watching her move up in the world, but not so surprising. She knows how to make things happen.
Over the past few years, Oregon Iron Works has spun off two very nice companies, United Barge (in partnership with Vigor Industrial) and United Streetcar. The barge building project has helped revive Portland’s shipyard into an industrial center humming with jobs. The streetcar venture will have a similar effect in Clackamas, with the added bonus that these manufacturing jobs can be counted legitimately as green jobs, since they will ultimately pull people out of their cars and into streetcars. The great Beltway Blowhard George Will may not like the shift away from the gas-guzzling status quo, but just because he’s determined to miss the train doesn’t mean Oregon should - or will.
Since scoring the contract in Portland, United Streetcar has landed another deal with the city of Tucson, Arizona. Other contracts could follow, creating more jobs, but they won't happen unless somebody makes them happen.