Experts make the case for a Portland water taxi service

Multnomah County

Terminal in Vancouver, Washington may be too great a leap for the proposed Frog Ferry, says founder Susan Bladholm.

The Oregon Convention Center dock on the Willamette River is one option under consideration for ferry service in Portland, but the projects future is uncertain. (Jonathan House/Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The metro area’s proposed passenger ferry is pulling up anchor from Vancouver.

For now, at least.

Frog Ferry first announced itself as a round-trip service between downtown Portland and the Washington city’s booming waterfront. While Terminal One is still eyed as a possible site of expansion, ferry backers have nixed it for the initial roll-out.

The ferry plan, launched by Susan Bladholm in late 2018, builds on earlier proposals to convert the Willamette River into a transit corridor, including a water taxi feasibility study commissioned by City Hall in 2006.

But routing the vessel across state borders has been doomed by at least one nagging issue: There’s not enough space along the waterfront for ‘Couv commuters to ditch their cars, according to Bladholm, who is founder and president of Frog Ferry.

“They have a huge parking issue. Most of our other stops are not parking dependent,” she said. “We have conversations with Vancouver several times a week. It’s just a matter of timing.”

Mike Bomar, director of economic development for the Port of Vancouver, offers another reason: “While we don’t have to keep the dock open to the public 24/7, we are restricted from giving preferential or exclusive access while it’s open.”

Cathedral Park in St. Johns is being floated as the replacement terminus; although that’s on the Oregon side of the river, and wouldn’t qualify as a two-state solution. The downtown stop near the Salmon Springs fountain is still planned, as well as another end-of-the-line in Lake Oswego. Firmer answers await the completion in 2020 of four feasibility studies.

The reports, at least, are fully funded — though the route to public dollars has included more than one twist and turn.

State lawmakers turned up their noses at Frog Ferry’s request for $500,000 this session, and the city of Portland’s 2019 budget produced $50,000, only a quarter of what was sought. TriMet is the recipient of $200,000 Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund grant by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which Bladholm says will help Frog Ferry.

Bladholm is undaunted: “Funding transit is something the public wants,” she told the Tribune. “The public part of the funding is going to take longer.”

Field of dreams

Water taxis and ferries are not a new idea. Just ask Seattle, Boston, Long Beach, San Francisco, Tampa or New Orleans. Or London. Or Brisbane.

Ralph Duncan, a consultant with the global maritime firm BMT, said boat lines, once built, benefit from a concept known as induced ridership.

“In other words: if you build it, they will come,” Duncan said. “That’s not saying water transportation is going to solve everybody’s problems. The solution is really multi-modal, and interconnectivity.”

So you trolley-hop from work to a shareable scooter hub, then zip to port, where a $150 monthly pass buys a berth … and time to recharge more than your laptop.

But the field of dreams is crowded. TriMet yearns for a downtown Portland subway, Transit Twitter talks of capping (or dynamiting) Interstate 5 — and the comments section wants to cruise on wide open freeway lanes. Maybe the humble passenger ship can’t compete.

“I think that’s a pretty myopic view,” argues Bladholm, noting that digging a tunnel for MAX is at least 20 years out. “We’re going to need all of the above, because congestion is getting worse every single day.”

The 54-year-old says the ferry will never fly without willing partners in government who will welcome the service onto their docks. Yet every jurisdiction is different.

Possible Portland locations include the South Waterfront Zidell property, the Oregon Convention Center dock or Oregon Health & Science University. All are mapped to varying degrees by preexisting transit.

Lake Oswego is described as a prime location, but the nine-year-old gangplank at Foothills Park is a steep 11-minute walk from the nearest bus stop. Some consider the land surrounding the park ripe for redevelopment, but nothing is certain.

“A lot of this is still in the very early planning stages,” said Anthony Hooper, Lake Oswego deputy city manager.

Bladholm also is eagerly eyeing the apartment blocks springing up near Cathedral Park on the way to Portland’s northern tip. “There’s going to be incredible growth there because of the rezoning,” she noted.

Tadpole ferry?

With a service start date pegged for 2023, Frog Ferry is undoubtedly still a tadpole.

Seattle’s water taxi service is seen as an aspirational model, given that it recouped 45% of operating costs at the fare box in 2018. (For TriMet, that number is closer to 25%.)

From the Emerald City’s Colman Dock, residents can waltz aboard car ferries operated by the state department of transportation or take the Fast Ferry to Kitsap County communities. The King County water taxi to Vashon Island or West Seattle boards at a pier next door.

“You win over thousands with that first boat ride,” said Paul Brodeur, marine division director for King County. “People don’t know what they’re missing. But once it’s there, it’s suddenly: ‘Ah hah, I have options now.'”

To be sure, the wide open waters of Elliott Bay provide a different navigational environment than the closely hemmed Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Here the choke point is the Steel Bridge, which carries cars, pedestrians, Amtrak and Union Pacific trains — and more than 10 bus and MAX lines. Bladholm thinks high water would require bridge lifts for the freight-hauling lower deck “four to six” days per year.

It’s a necessity, as experts agree that dependability is crucial for water transit.

“For ferry-riders, a big part of why they ride a ferry is because of the experience,” said John Sainsbury, president of the Seattle-based HMS Consulting. “But they’re not going to make that shift unless you know it’s going to be reliable.”

Duncan said a District of Columbia riverboat service has thrived despite similar challenges on the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia waterways.

“It’s got debris, and it’s got shallow water, and it’s got very, very low bridge clearances to get under,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, cities with rivers are taking this on.”

Money also influences whether a ferry service sinks or swims.

Since 2007, King County has used a ferry taxing district to fund service, with the voter-approved property tax currently drawing a penny and a quarter for each $1,000 worth of assessed value. Seattle’s water taxis are a spoke in the wheel of buses, bikes, rails and ride-shares managed by King County Metro (the equivalent of TriMet, and not to be confused with the regional government authority here).

“When the water taxi pulls in the buses are waiting,” said Brodeur. “The benefit is that it’s just better integration for the traveling public.”

Frog Ferry hopes to follow the tracks laid by Portland Streetcar, which originally was championed by business leaders in the 1980s, and retains a nonprofit board alongside its government operators.

It was a winding road to follow, and Metro President Lynn Peterson noted that the streetcar’s original nickname within TriMet was the “donkey trolley.”

“I will be there for you, and we’ll make it happen together,” Peterson said during a recent gathering of supporters at the Bladholm family farm on Sauvie Island, before immediately backpedaling. “We will not be operating it. We don’t own transportation assets.”

Ride the waves

With a go or no-go decision projected for 2021, it’s an open question whether Portland is ready to take the plunge and expand its transit repertoire.

The latest estimates circulated by Bladholm suggest a capital construction price tag of $50 million, with perhaps 85% coming from the Federal Transit Administration. Ongoing operating costs for four boats would be about $1 million monthly, while the passenger capacity is rosily predicted at 2.4 million people per year.

It’s a big ask, but with a career mixing stints at public agencies — including the tourism division of Business Oregon, the Port of Portland and Travel Portland — as well as time spent at the aviation operations giant Erickson, Bladholm could be uniquely suited to pull it off.

So if ferry service does come to Bridgetown, it surely won’t only be tourists snapping waterborne selfies with White Stag’s iconic Portland, Oregon sign in the background.

The biggest argument in favor could be the rolling waves themselves.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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