There’s nothing quite like standing and waiting for 45 minutes on cold, wet pavement for a streetcar to come trundling around the corner. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of that.
I decided to try out Portland Streetcar’s new Central Loop Line at the beginning of fall term. The streetcar is free for Portland State students, and I’m a cheapskate, so it seemed like the best option once the MAX Free Rail Zone went away.
I was mistaken.
It all started out so well. The first morning, I caught the streetcar on the east side of Portland and spent the half-hour ride to PSU studying, with little to no disturbance. I marveled at how quiet and uncrowded it was compared to the MAX, where I’d often spend the whole time standing. I congratulated myself on my brilliant new plan to maintain a free, no-hassle commute.
That’s pretty much where the warm fuzzies ended.
Every day since, the streetcar from PSU has been late. And not just by a few minutes—more like 15, 30, 40 minutes. No matter how many times you check TriMet’s website, the estimated time of arrival on the stop’s display is completely different.
One particularly unamusing evening, I was on my way home and TriMet’s website told me: Next streetcar due at 5:12 p.m. Being extra careful, I made sure to arrive early in case the time changed. Bad idea.
The display’s red neon message mocked me: “CL Line—40 minutes.” Let’s just say it wasn’t the best way to end
For all the buzz this new line originally generated, it’s a pretty disappointing debut.
It wouldn’t make sense to compare it to the MAX. After all, it has to compete with traffic, just like all the cars that weave in front of and behind it. Some inconsistency is to be expected. However, the same can be said for buses, and if they ran 30–40 minutes late every day, TriMet wouldn’t hear the end of it.
The varying arrival times aren’t really the problem. It’s that predicting them is impossible, which makes planning a trip also impossible. With any other form of transport, TriMet’s website is generally reliable, so why is the streetcar so far off? If Portland Streetcar and TriMet are going to collaborate for easy-to-navigate public transit, synchronicity is key.
If there were even a semblance of synchronicity, we might have a fighting chance of getting somewhere within a predictable time frame.
But it gets worse.
Apparently, not even the timetables or actual displays can be trusted. For example, last week, one stop’s display told me I had a 30-minute wait. I stood there, debating whether or not to pop down to Safeway in the interim, when lo and behold, the streetcar appeared seven minutes later.
Portland Streetcar has had this line in the works for years and has had ample time to test and retest the new routes. How is it possible that the timetables are so unreliable? There should have been countless practice runs at all times of the day to predict traffic patterns and get it down to an art by the launch date.
If it were a complimentary service for everyone, it’d be understandable, and you’d just put up with the inconvenience. But what about all the non-PSU customers who have to pay to travel?
There’s no way I’d pay for this level of ineptitude.
The total cost of the CL Line was $148 million, $27 million of which the City of Portland paid (translation: our tax dollars). If the city’s going to spend that much of our money on something meant to enhance Portland’s public transit system, then it should debut at the highest level, not blunder its way onto the tracks.
Portland is so easy to navigate because of the city’s investment in public transportation, and it’d be a mistake to forget how fortunate we are in that respect. However, it is for that very reason—the city’s reputation—that Portland Streetcar should uphold a tradition of excellence and ensure that the money Portlanders have invested in it is worth it.