The company hired to build Tucson's streetcars is four to six months behind schedule for its first customer, Portland, Ore.

And it has notified Tucson that delivery of the city's first prototype car for testing and evaluation will be at least three months late.

But United Streetcar and city officials still expect those tracks workers are laying through downtown will have trains rolling down them by the scheduled November 2013 startup date.

United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, is attempting to be the first U.S. company in 60 years to build streetcars. Portland and Tucson are its first customers.

However, the company has hit some snags, and has yet to complete its first car. United has struggled with design problems and propulsion system issues for months. With deadlines looming, delivery dates and plans are changing.

Tucson has ordered eight cars. Its prototype car was supposed to arrive in October. That has been pushed back to January because United Streetcar is so far behind on its Portland order.

Portland was supposed to receive all five of its cars by Sept. 22, when the city plans to open a new streetcar line. But so far Portland has only received a prototype, and it hasn't been put through the complete testing process yet.

The company has completed the outer shell for one of Tucson's cars, United Streetcar President Chandra Brown said, but no chassis, propulsion systems, wiring or seats.

Despite being behind schedule, Brown said she expects her company to have cars ready in time for Tucson's November 2013 opening.

But a lot depends on how the testing goes.

"Right now it's more an art than a science," Brown said. "This is the first time we built a production car. … And I really want to make it clear, we will know a lot more in a month or two when we test these Portland cars."

Brown said problems with propulsion systems and meeting exacting safety standards have contributed to the delays.

But she said the company is learning from the mistakes and setbacks experienced in its first run of vehicles, which means things should run more smoothly in the future.

"It's actually a huge advantage for Tucson to be behind Portland," she said. "We are going to take those lessons learned and apply them to the shells in stock we have right now moving through our shop for Tucson."

The executive director of Portland's streetcar project, Rick Gustafson, said if the testing goes well over the next few weeks, Portland should begin receiving cars in November with the final car arriving around February 2013.

Gustafson said the new Portland line will open as planned in September, and will use cars from Portland's existing fleet until the new cars arrive.

He said delays are common in streetcar construction, especially for a new company.

"They've been very optimistic about their timelines and we've been skeptical," Gustafson said. "But time frames are always frustrating. But in the scheme of things you want the cars to last 40 years, so waiting an extra four or five months isn't that big a deal."

Tucson streetcar project manager, Shellie Ginn, said the city is confident United Streetcar will make its deadlines.

She said the city has hired technical experts and they are in Oregon overseeing the production of Tucson's cars.

"Those experts are telling us if (United Streetcar) stays on track, they should be able to meet the deadlines," Ginn said. She said the next progress report will be on Sept. 13.

Carlos de Leon, director of transit services for the Regional Transportation Authority, said while this is not an optimum situation, there is one bright side.

Since the prototype has been delayed, he said, United Streetcar will have extra time to test the Tucson car in Oregon - meaning it's less likely the streetcar will arrive with problems when it's delivered next year.

"It's a little bit different strategy, but it actually works better for us," he said. "Having more of the testing done on their site is better for our project."

Councilman Steve Kozachik said with the city paying around $4 million per car and with taxpayers footing the $196 million overall project cost, it's time to start scrutinizing what's going on in the Pacific Northwest.

"There are far too many private investors relying on the timing of this thing being up and running for us to be hearing that they're not even done with the shells, much less the electrical, propulsion systems and the real guts of what makes the cars run," Kozachik said. "Staff and our congressional delegation need to light a bonfire under Oregon Iron Works' butts and let them know that their failure to produce is not an option, even if they have to farm out work to somebody who knows how to build these things."


Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or

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