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.
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.