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Mayor Gray was impressed in Portland, Ore., but system there is hitting some bumps

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Mary Cheh,Vincent Gray,Metro and Traffic

When Mayor Vincent Gray showed off one of the District's streetcars in Anacostia last week, he pointed to, once again, what he says is a success story: streetcars in Portland, Ore.

Before he became D.C.'s mayor, Gray visited Portland twice -- and both times was impressed by their expansive streetcar network.

"No one had anything negative to say about the streetcar there," he said during Wednesday's news conference. Afterward, in a conversation with The Washington Examiner, he explained further. "I wasn't even the chairman of the council yet," he said. "I really wanted to talk to the people of Portland."

Since then, the District has modeled its plans, in part, off Portland's streetcar system, which has almost 4 million riders a year. The District has gone so far as to purchase some of its streetcars from the same company as the Portland system.

But, since the mayor's sojourns to Oregon, the streetcar project in Portland has faced serious hurdles. A headline posted about two weeks ago on the Oregonian's website read, "Oregon streetcars: Money flows despite missed deadlines, cost overruns."

And Portland residents have other complaints: Some have griped that the streetcars are too sluggish -- at times, slower than walking.

"In many cases I can beat the streetcar by walking," said Eric Fruits, an adjunct economics professor at Portland State University and a critic of the streetcars." His finding was confirmed by the Oregonian.

"They are kind of the cruise ships of public transportation," Fruits said about Portland's streetcars. "They're slow and flashy and don't do a real good job of getting from place to place."

But he acknowledges the streetcars have an appeal. "Like a cruise ship does, they have entertainment value," he said.

Despite some criticisms, Portland's streetcars have become a national model and the District is not the only city to seek to imitate Oregon's most populous city.

The District plans for its first streetcars to begin running along the H Street corridor by the end of the year.

D.C. has estimated that a 22-mile section of the project will cost more than $500 million and the city does not have a final estimate for the total cost of the planned 37 miles of track.

Mary Cheh, chairwoman for the D.C. Council's Committee on Transportation and the Environment, said studying other cities' efforts has helped the District prepare.

"We wanted actual real-life examples of where this was done and the economic good effects being proven," she said.

Cheh said that H Street has already begun to see property values rise ahead of the streetcar's implementation.

But, she added, observing other cities would also help the District to better avoid others' missteps.

"Sometimes," Cheh said, "novelty is not the best."

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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