InTransition Magazine
Article URL:
InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

Archived editions: 

For United Streetcar, ‘Made in America’ Is Serious Business

Oregon Manufacturer Flourishes during U.S. Streetcar Revival by ‘Insourcing, Not Outsourcing’

By Randy Salzman

The words “transportation jobs” often conjure visions of workers in bright vests with shovels or searchlights silhouetting hardhats on the side of a highway at night. Cities like Tucson, Portland and now Washington D.C., however, are recognizing they can quietly create transportation jobs without inducing more people to drive and without triggering an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. In the process, they are creating both construction jobs and jobs that last, while building communities and encouraging long-run economic vitality.


United Streetcar Staff

United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, takes pride in being

he first American streetcar manufacturer of modern times.

These cities are going “back to the future” with modernized streetcars and, at the same time, re-inventing a private manufacturing base not seen in America since World War II. Some 100 American communities are now building, planning or considering streetcar lines, leaving the Clackamas, Ore.-based United Streetcar sitting in the catbird seat. United’s first American-made streetcar is now rolling in Portland, and the company is so confident in the future that it has built a test track to train drivers to pilot its future products.

“For under a $5 million federal investment [in 2005], we’re talking about creating hundreds of jobs. It’s a great return on Uncle Sam’s investment and we think that’s something the federal government should be doing—insourcing, not outsourcing,” said Chandra Brown, president of the wholly-owned subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works. “When we talk about creating jobs, we’re talking not only about the people in our shop, we’re talking about all the jobs up and down the supply chain and we have 200 suppliers in 20 states.”

The federal government began the public-private partnership a half-dozen years ago, and today, United Streetcar has orders of $50 million, which include $26 million for seven Tucson cars. Meanwhile, ever-more cities are considering re-laying tracks that were torn up around the 1940s. Over the summer, for example, Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced that RATP Dev McDonald Transit Associates will operate and maintain the Dis-
trict’s burgeoning 22-mile streetcar line, San Antonio issued a request for information for its potential line, and Ft. Lauderdale won an $18 million federal TIGER grant to develop its Wave streetcar project.

According to research by Australian transportation expert Dr. Peter Newman, the stations on a streetcar or light rail line increase nearby property values by at least 15 percent, spurring private investment and economic opportunity. The rails are a public commitment that any retailer can see and appreciate as people will be getting on and off “right there” for generations.

Presently, there is little American data about long-term economic effects, but Portland reports that within two blocks of its modern, decade-old streetcar alignment, 10,212 housing units and 5.5 million square feet of commercial space had sprung up by 2008. Nearby investment is valued at $3.5 billion and the city opened a 3.3-mile extension in September.

United Streetcar Staff

United Streetcar has to date received orders from Portland, Tucson and

Washington, D.C.

Oregon Iron Works, a 68-year builder of ships and bridges, read the transportation tea leaves almost a decade ago and invested millions in United Streetcar, realizing that if Americans returned to public transit, streetcars would provide ready work for the company’s welders and electricians. Since 1944, OIW had been constructing everything related to steel, from nuclear containment to hydropower and wave energy metallics. OIW officials figured that whatever specialties came with streetcars, requirements for domestic content assured a future for American manufacturing which hadn’t existed since 1952.

Various Buy America provisions stipulate that U.S. Department of Transportation infrastructure projects should be built whenever possible with American-made products, and United Streetcar describes itself proudly on its website as “the first modern Buy America compliant streetcar in the U.S.” Having two series of cars today— both based on a Czech design and one adding a U.S. propulsion system —United Streetcar exceeds the 60 percent domestic content requirement by as much as one-third.

 “A huge portion of the streetcar is buy-out material,” Brown explains. “We don’t make seats here, for example, or wire cable, so it’s really a team effort with other American firms. We’ve been working with companies who have never done anything like this before. They’ve had to build things they’ve never made before, test the prototypes and convince us they worked before we could order.

“As with any new start-up, we’ve been challenged with delays and issues but it’s been amazing fun and, most importantly, we’ve had over a hundred new hires at OIW and United Streetcar with hundreds more at suppliers both in the northwest and around the country.”

While the BlueGreen Alliance trumpets the fact that OIW is a union shop, the supply chain work includes seat manufacturers in Michigan and the trucks (wheel assemblies) are made in Pennsylvania. Not every job is high-priced labor, but most pay more than highway construction jobs.

“I believe this is the dawn of a new era for public transportation in the United States,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the unveiling of United’s first product. “A new opportunity to claim ‘Made in America.’ It’s a chance to generate good-paying jobs.”


United Streetcar Staff

Dozens of U.S. cities are now developing, planning or considering

streetcar lines.

D.C. already owns two Czech-made streetcars and has kept them in storage while laying tracks down H Street and Benning Road. The city has ordered two additional cars from United Streetcar and envisions a billion-dollar, 37-mile system equipped with 50 cars. Mayor Gray has even explored funding with private partners, including the Import-Export Bank of China, in hopes of speeding up the District’s project and fast-forwarding transit-oriented development.

Although no American city has more than 15 miles of modern streetcar track today, every community with a streetcar line, even those with lines only 2 miles long (D.C.’s initial stretch), show improvements in property value and sales tax revenue. Possible impacts on health, greenhouse gas emissions and oil dependency are difficult to forecast, but more and more local planners are seeing the long-term positives of providing alternatives to driving. Since making the case to elected officials who must respond to driving voters remains the key step in gaining funding for new transit projects, the streetcar process isn’t for the faint-hearted, as OIW realized when it started United Streetcar.

“Almost every major American city is looking today, but probably only 10-12 American cities have something that could happen in the next five years,” Brown said. “No one just calls us up and says, ‘I’d like to order six cars.’ A city has got to find the funds, decide the route, provide for environmental impact and, perhaps most importantly, do the public outreach long before ordering the cars.

“It’s a bright but slow future. We’re very proud about this creation of a new manufacturing industry in the U.S. but it’s not going to happen quickly.”

Randy Salzman is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

Return to this Issue