Sunday, May 31, 2020
May 31, 2020

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Donnelly: Portland-Vancouver ferry may prove its worth

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A waste of money. That’s how a few partisans in our regional transportation debate already dismiss a proposed passenger ferry system to connect Vancouver with Portland. It’s hard to deny the idea has challenges. But most of the prominent business leaders attending a mid-December gathering hosted by ferry developers were eager for more information.

It’s too early to decide whether ferries for people may play a limited but helpful role here. Our society depends upon creative thinkers asking “What if?” and then succeeding — often against steep odds — in founding profitable enterprises, developing goods and services that others need.

Frog Ferry, a concept funded to date entirely with donor dollars and supported by pro-bono services — may be just such a future success story. Or it may not be. A 2006 study of the ferry concept by TriMet concluded its time had not come.

But 2019’s Frog Ferry, with a name derived from Chinookan lore, is not TriMet. Its entrepreneurial developers — such as Susan Bladholm, president of Friends of Frog Ferry — are experienced business problem-solvers who emphasize they have no interest in pursuing an impractical dream. They envision a private-public partnership for this “bus on water.” Bladholm has worked for Port of Portland and Erickson Inc.’s helicopter system. Private sector supporters include Daimler Trucks North America, Vigor Industries, and Zidell Marine, while supportive maritime enterprises include Portland Spirit and WA Ferry.

14 bridges

Why don’t we use our rivers to move people? Bladholm posed the question after viewing freeway gridlock from the air. Portland and Vancouver have two rivers with 14 existing bridges. Could some commuters use water access instead, bypassing bottlenecks? Would optionality — the choice on a given day or hour — add sufficient value to increase ferry ridership? Bladholm’s solution would move 149 passengers per ferry from Vancouver to downtown Portland in 38 minutes, with stops on the Willamette River such as St. Johns and Swan Island. The project estimates 596 passengers per commute initially.

Many vibrant cities situated on water — some 600 in the U.S. — have ferry systems. San Francisco Bay’s ferries date from 1826 when a sailboat was adapted for ferrying. Seattle has one of the world’s largest ferry systems, benefiting from its geologic history that exposed peninsulas and islands, now valuable real estate. Sydney, Australia, offers extensive ferry services for cars and people. Some U.S. ferry systems are privately owned, while others are public-private partnerships.

Size of market and potential ridership matter to ferry success. What is the “break even” population here for feasibility and when will we reach it? Will ferry ridership cause fewer cars or mainly fewer bus riders? Could ferries play a positive role in response to a serious earthquake?

Many such uncertainties will be addressed in a series of studies, estimated to cost $1.3 million, including a financing plan. Topics include human, economic, and environmental impacts; capital and operating costs; funding and fares; and nitty-gritty concerns such as floating logs, currents, weather, and fueling. In the final phase, if no fatal flaws have emerged, a local engineer’s report on the location, characteristics and cost of new infrastructure will lead to a go-or-no-go investment decision, as early as 2020.

Frog Ferry could supplement high-volume solutions such as a third bridge on the Columbia, an Interstate 5 Bridge replacement and Bus Rapid Transit. To the extent possible, Frog Ferry should avoid the controversy between Oregon and Washington regarding these mega-solutions costing billions of dollars.

Decades from now, Vancouver will almost certainly need more transportation options across the Columbia River than we now have. Will Frog Ferry be one of them? Let’s find out.

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