The organizers, financial supporters and volunteers hoping to bring passenger ferries to the Portland area said Tuesday they are making progress and still hope to launch the commuter transit service in spring 2023.
Susan Bladholm, founder of the nonprofit Friends of Frog Ferry group, said she also believes there’s still time to include public dollars for the ferry proposal in the Metro regional government’s $7 billion transportation package expected to appear on the ballot in November.
“We’re doing everything we can on our end,” Bladholm said, saying there is still time for the Metro council to “make room for us” this fall.
“We’re feeling good about it, candidly,” Bladholm said, adding that Metro Council President Lynn Peterson “has been very supportive of this, but time will tell.”
Peterson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bladholm said she’s banking that a comprehensive study of the ferry’s financial and operational viability, expected to be released this summer, could move the needle and answer some lingering questions from the general public and large bureaucracies alike.
That study is being paid for largely by a $200,000 state grant and $40,000 from the Portland transportation bureau. “This is really an important plan,” Bladholm said. The document will include a deeper dive into the project’s financial viability, what types of infrastructure like docks may be needed, and how a ferry system would be maintained and operated and how best to pay for it.
If that report shows the system is financially and economically viable, Bladholm said, she plans to go to public agencies and ask for support.
The ferry idea calls for a roughly 100- to 149-person vessel that would transport passengers from Vancouver to downtown Portland. That trip would take roughly 38 minutes, with a shorter commute on the way back to Washington, given that the Willamette River flows north. Bladholm envisions a “scalable” approach that would potentially add up to 9 stations along the route, with stops in St. Johns, Sellwood, and potentially suburban points to the south like Milwaukie, Lake Oswego and Oregon City.
A ferry from Cathedral Park in St. Johns to downtown would take 16 minutes. The group is proposing to use lower-profile boats along the entire route, so bridge lifts are not necessary.
During a news conference with views of the Willamette from The Portland Business Alliance’s downtown offices, Bladholm said much has happened in the past 15 months since she last spoke publicly about the ferry plan. The nascent effort is now formally a nonprofit, she said, and she envisions an operations model “loosely based” on the Portland Streetcar’s setup. The streetcar is run by a nonprofit, which has its own board of directors, but the vehicles are owned by the city. Dan Bower, the executive director of the streetcar, sits on the ferry group’s board.
Bladholm said ferry service in Portland is financially viable, in part, because there’s a large pot of untapped federal support available. She said Oregon is one of 10 states that doesn’t seek government support through the Federal Transit Administration’s grant program to support ferry operations. Unlike bus or rail projects, which now typically draw a 50% federal match, ferry proposals can receive up to 80% from the federal government.
Last year, the feds distributed $33 million to various states for ferry programs.
But it’s still unclear how much demand exists for a ferry system in Portland and Vancouver today. A demand modeling report released this month by ECONorthwest found much of the demand would hinge on parking availability and whether riders could connect to other public transit. “To demonstrate the viability of ferry service, a financial feasibility study should be completed to ensure enough revenues can be generated to cover the cost of providing the service,” the report said. “Within that context, the revised demand estimates may be sufficient to sustain a financially feasible initial phase of operations proposed by Frog Ferry.” It was not immediately clear if that assessment applied strictly to a Vancouver to downtown Portland route.
Bladholm said she will be transparent about the projected public subsidy needed to operate a ferry here. She said she doesn’t believe a ferry will cost more to operate than a bus.
The ferry group said it has received seven different proposals from companies about what a proposed ferry may look like and might cost, and Bladholm said she’d share those designs later this summer.
Bladholm said she continues to gain local support from volunteers and business leaders including the Zidell family, which owns 33 acres along the waterfront in Southwest Portland. She said that she will release in a couple weeks the group’s latest financial support from a private entity, whose identity she is keeping secret until then.
Charlene Zidell, vice president of strategic partnerships for her family’s south waterfront real estate company, said she’s dreamed of a ferry system for years. She called the ferry proposal “visionary.”
“Please join us,” she said.