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Portland-Vancouver ferry will take ‘courage’

Backers of ‘bold’ project call for public funding

By Andrew Theen, The Oregonian
Published: November 19, 2018, 4:11pm

Portland — Portland is “woefully lagging behind” dozens of fellow river cities around the globe, backers of an upstart ferry project said Friday, and it’s past time for the metro area and the state to find the political courage — and the cash — to help make a larger system happen here.

Susan Bladholm, president of the newly formed Friends of Frog Ferry nonprofit, told the state’s top transportation board that her organization has assembled a coalition of 450 supporters — including key business owners with waterfront property like the Zidell family in Southwest Portland. Now, she said, Oregon must help pay for an in-depth study of what it would take to bring ferry service to the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.

“This is a big, bold, audacious, challenging project,” said Bladholm, who was involved with Cycle Oregon from its inception and worked in economic development for the state before working in the private sector. “It’s going to take an enormous amount of courage.”

Bladholm said she recently left her job at Erickson Incorporated, a Portland-based aviation giant, to focus full time on the ferry plan.

As the Portland region prepares for a planned 2020 transportation bond to tackle projects big and small across the tri-county area, ferry supporters say the region in the short term can also take concrete steps toward giving Clark County commuters and visitors another alternative to driving.

Frog Ferry representatives say a feasibility study and financial plan would cost $1.3 million. By 2020, that plan could be finished, and boats could be ordered. Ferry service could begin by 2022 if all goes according to plan. More financial specifics would be outlined in the feasibility study, but any plan would likely have to include a public subsidy.

The groups’ plan calls for ferry service from Vancouver to downtown Portland, likely terminating near the Salmon Springs Fountain near the World Trade Center. That trip, which would transport people and bicycles but no automobiles, could accommodate 149 passengers and would take 38 minutes.

Long-term plans call for potentially eight stops along the route, depending on demand, and extending water service south to Milwaukie, Lake Oswego and Oregon City. Other expansion could include service along the Columbia River Gorge.

“I’m willing to buy the first boat,” Dan Yates, president of the Portland Spirit company told the Oregon Transportation Commission, “but you guys have to do the first study.” Yates estimated the boat could cost $4 million to $5 million, but he said the public sector first needs to “actually put some skin in the game.”

Yates, who has operated his Portland Spirit business for 25 years, said he’s been frustrated with the lack of water transportation options the entire time he’s been here.

The region last studied ferries as a potential option in 2006, but for decades it has been discussed as a potential long-range transit option.

Bladholm said she envisions creating a public-private partnership to operate the ferry system, and it would be integrated into the broader transit network with a similar fare structure or payment mechanism. Seattle has such a system, where the region’s Orca electronic fare card can be used to pay for light rail, buses and ferries.

Chris Ford, an investment areas project manager for the Metro regional government, said the ferry proposal is on the region’s long-term project list, which makes it eligible for state and federal funding.

Alando Simpson, an Oregon transportation commissioner, called the project a “realistic and practical concept.”

Bob Van Brockin, also a statewide transportation commissioner, said he’d like to see water transportation included in the bouquet off transit solutions to help address congestion.

Bladholm estimated one ferry could get 500 cars off of Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver.