All-American Streetcar Boom Fuels Urban Future It can sound like something out of The Jetsons when President Obama talks about high-speed rail, futuristic airports and nationwide, broadband Internet. One growing part of America's infrastructure, however, has a distinctly 19th-century feel. It's the return of the streetcar.

All-American Streetcar Boom Fuels Urban Future

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President Obama spent the last week talking about his plans to improve America's infrastructure. Sometimes his speeches sound like something out of the Jetsons. He talks about high-speed rail, futuristic airports, nationwide broadband Internet. But one growing part of America's infrastructure has a distinctly 19th century feel.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the rebirth of the street car.

(Soundbite of street car rolling)

ARI SHAPIRO: Outside the famous Powell's bookstore in Portland, Oregon, a 21st century streetcar glides to a stop, opens its doors and lets out a mix of tourists and locals. Modern streetcars have been running in this city for about a decade. Chandra Brown lives right along their route.

Ms. CHANDRA BROWN (President, United Streetcar, Vice President, Oregon Iron Works): I live in downtown Portland. I love the streetcar. And they had told me that there were no streetcars built in the United States, and I basically said you're a liar. That can't be honestly. And so I did some research after that and found out that, yes, that is absolutely correct. There was no builder of modern streetcars in the United States.

SHAPIRO: As it happens, Brown is a vice president of Oregon Iron Works. The company has been making bridges, boats and other heavy equipment since the 1940s. A few years ago, they created a subsidiary called United Streetcar. Now, they are manufacturing the first American-built streetcars in more than 50 years.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SHAPIRO: The factory is a cavernous space in a Portland suburb where people are welding a nuclear project next to men with hammers constructing the base of a streetcar. Seventy to 90 percent of the parts are made in the U.S. There are seats from Michigan, upholstery from North Carolina, windshield wipers from Connecticut.

Ms. BROWN: Considering we just started and it was 2009 when we really finished the first prototype, made-in-the-USA streetcar, and now this little fledgling company is building 13 cars with $50 million-plus in orders.

SHAPIRO: In fact, the U.S. is in a streetcar boomlet. More than a dozen cities either have them or are actively planning for their development, says Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer says.

Representative EARL BLUMENAUER (Democrat, Oregon): You don't have to be a large, metropolitan area to support it. Little Kenosha, Wisconsin has a streetcar. Little Rock has a streetcar.

SHAPIRO: I met Blumenauer in Washington, D.C. at a coffee shop on H Street Northeast. It's a gradually gentrifying neighborhood that is Stage 1 in Washington's planned streetcar route.

Mr. BLUMENAUER: What the skeptics, I think, forget, is that virtually every American city was designed around a streetcar. I mean, the most ambitious plans for Washington, D.C. for a streetcar are approximately one-fifth of what the District had 100 years ago.

SHAPIRO: Blumenauer was a champion of streetcars years before his state started manufacturing them. He says they're green, they last decades, and businesses are more likely to set up shop along a streetcar route because they know it won't move the way a bus line might.

Mr. BLUMENAUER: So, reintroducing the streetcar is actually back to the future, and this is what this community was about when it was coming together a century ago.

SHAPIRO: Critics of the streetcar craze boom worry that these expensive new routes may be going into places where they are not the most useful. Brian Taylor directs UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. He says governors, mayors and taxpayers all want flashy new projects, but sometimes it's cheaper and more effective just to fix what's already there.

Mr. BRIAN TAYLOR (Director, Institute of Transportation Studies, UCLA): We're painting ourselves into a bizarre corner where we're not able to maintain our streets, where we're not able to maintain the buses and the trains that we have out there, and we're focused on cutting ribbons in front of new rail projects.

SHAPIRO: So, are you skeptical of the streetcar partisans who say this is the magic bullet?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, it's sort of like saying are you skeptical of cardiologists that say that coronary artery bypass surgery is really the solution. Again, if the investment is tied in effectively to the rest of the transit system, it can be a very effective investment. If it's not - and there are cases where it has not been - then it's not.

SHAPIRO: On Monday, President Obama will unveil his new budget. He has already said it will call for rebuilding American infrastructure. That means more planes, trains, automobiles - and perhaps also streetcars.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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