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.