Can a river ferry relieve traffic? Proposal hopes for green light
A months-long effort to fashion a new ferry service across the Columbia River in Portland comes into public view Friday before the Oregon Transportation Commission.
The ambitious plan to ferry hundreds of people between Vancouver and Portland has been encouraged by Gov. Kate Brown, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other leaders.
The force behind the plan is a company called Frog Ferry.
Its founder and president is Susan Bladholm, a marketing executive with prior public sector experience at the Port of Portland and in public economic development agencies in Oregon. She also co-founded Cycle Oregon, the popular bicycle ride.
Bladholm said her company has been developing its plan for a year and a half. She wasn't ready in an interview to reveal the full details, saying such a disclosure could jeopardize efforts to round up help from government agencies to make the plan work.
Frog Ferry's idea is to deploy passenger ferry service in three stages. The first stage would mean round-trip service between Vancouver and Portland from stops on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. A one-way trip would take about 40 minutes.
The ferries, which could each carry 149 passengers, would have bicycle storage, but wouldn't carry cars. Frog Ferry says the ferries could carry nearly 600 people during commute times, taking 500 vehicles off the congested Interstate 5 span between Washington and Oregon. More ferry stops would be added during the next two stages, with service extending up the Columbia Gorge.
An 'untapped resource'
The ferry service would be an answer to growing Portland-area traffic congestion clogging freeways, extending commutes and costing businesses. That congestion cost Portland commuters $1.76 billion in time and fuel in 2014, according to a 2015 analysis by the Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.
Brown believes the Frog Ferry proposal is "the most organized effort to date" to turn to the rivers for relieving "unprecedented levels" of congestion, according to Nikki Fisher, a spokeswoman for the governor. She said the governor thinks "our waterways are an untapped resource to increase mobility."
The depth of the support was revealed in letters Frog Ferry submitted to the state ahead of Friday's meeting of the state Transportation Commission.
"Transit remains a critical priority for our region, and I appreciate you working with the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the Office of the Harbormaster, and my office to pursue a Portland-area river taxi service," Wheeler wrote in a Jan. 12 letter to Bladholm.
Curtis Robinhold, executive director of the Port of Portland, addressed Frog Ferry's proposal in a Feb. 9 letter to Bladholm. "I support the Frog Ferry initiative as a public-private partnership, and wish you well in leveraging local, state and federal funding sources, as well as private sector investors to aggregate resources and improve the traffic situation," Robinhold wrote. "Best of luck to you as the initiative moves forward."
Commission will hear proposal
Bladholm approached Matt Garrett, director of the state Transportation Department, six months ago about appearing before the state commission, according to Tom Fuller, agency spokesman. He said Garrett has taken no position on the plan. "I think the commission is just interested in hearing information and ideas around ferry service and we'll just have to see whether anything comes of it after that," Fuller said.
Commission Chair Tammy Baney said she didn't expect any decision at Friday's meeting.
The commission "is charged with ensuring a safe and efficient transportation system. This concept is one that we want to know more about," she wrote in an email to the Oregon Capital Bureau. "Susan Bladholm of the Frog Ferry, has been working with ODOT on feasibility. It makes sense for us to be informed."
In an interview Monday, Bladholm couldn't estimate the cost of the river ferry service but said her company would seek public and private funding to launch the service.
Greater Portland Inc., a public-private economic development organization, is a nonprofit fiscal sponsor, according to documents submitted to the state. Other entities could potentially become fiscal sponsors in the future. Fiscal sponsorship is an arrangement that typically allows projects that may lack tax-exempt status to raise money and get other administrative support, according to the National Council of Nonprofits.
Frog Ferry intends to become a nonprofit, Bladholm said.
Working behind the scenes
Bladholm wouldn't elaborate on how the project came about. She said it was not prompted by the 2013 failure of a proposed bi-state agreement to replace the Interstate 5 drawbridge over the Columbia.
"We're anticipating having more news to share on the 27th that will really help get momentum behind us," Bladholm said.
Under the timeline, summer service could begin in 2022. But that's an ambitious goal, Bladholm said.
Frog Ferry in its submission to the state said some obstacles to ferry service are on the river itself, including logs and other debris. But it also faces hurdles getting funding and support from local governments.
Bladholm said that no public agency has volunteered to take the lead on the project yet. "We are trying to shore that up, and we have a lot of supporters that are working behind the scenes with a number of these elected officials and public agencies," Bladholm said. She also said a news story on the concept before the group is ready to announce publicly "could undermine some of those efforts."
It's not the first time Portland ferry service has been suggested as a modern commuting option. In 2006, the city of Portland decided it shouldn't pursue commuter ferry service because a study showed that building terminals and operating the ferry would be more expensive than other transportation.
But the study noted that significant increases in population and commute travel that make ferry service more economically feasible.