PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland’s decades-long vision for bypassing I-5 bridge traffic with a publicly funded ferry system is unlikely to materialize within the next five years, Portland city councilor and Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Mingus Mapps suggested at Wednesday’s city council meeting.
The Portland Frog Ferry project, a community-organized effort to put passenger ferries in the Willamette by 2026, was met with “disappointing” news at Wednesday’s meeting. Although Mapps said that he supports the ferry project, he added that it is “awfully difficult” to include a new public transportation system in the city’s 2023 Regional Transportation Plan and Constrained Projects List while the Portland Bureau of Transportation is dealing with a $32 million budget deficit.
“I support this project, I share your vision, I respect you, and because I respect you, I’m going to speak some truth right now and this is going to be difficult,” Mapps said. “If you’ve paid attention to some of the conversations we’ve had over the last several weeks, you have seen me come to my colleagues and talk about the grand economic fact that PBOT’s budget is fundamentally unstable and flawed.”
If the project is not included in the 2023 Regional Transportation Plan, the project would remain ineligible to apply for federal grants for the next five years. Susan Bladholm, the founder of the Friends of Frog Ferry, the organization leading Portland’s ferry effort, told KOIN 6 News that losing a spot on the city’s Regional Transportation Plan would be a major stepback for the project. The delay could also cause the organization to miss out on valuable opportunities to receive funding from local donors and President Biden’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill.
“The project is completely financially stalled,” Bladholm said. “Our team has had several conversations with foundations and prospective corporate partners, and they all have indicated that they want to see the city sign on before they commit funding.”
Mapps said at Wednesday’s meeting that adding the ferry project to the 2023 Regional Transportation Plan would affect funding for other infrastructure projects in Portland. However, he did not say how keeping the project in the 2023 plan would affect other projects. Mapps did not respond to KOIN 6’s follow-up questions about his reasoning for wanting to withhold the project from the 2023 plan.
“In terms of how this fits together, if I put the ferry on the regional transportation plan, that means I don’t put some other infrastructure project into that slot that I kind of have to get done, which the feds might reasonably provide us some help with,” Mapps said.
Friends of Frog Ferry, meanwhile, said that there’s no limit to the number of projects that can be placed on the Regional Transportation Plan and that including the project would not have a financial effect on funding for other local infrastructure projects.
“There is not a limit to the number of projects added to the RTP,” Bladholm said. “And it’s important to know that if any elected [official] says that we can only ask the feds for so much money or projects — this federal funding bucket is separate and does not compete against other transit projects such as buses, light rail, traffic lights. The Federal Transit Administration is aware of our project and has directly told us that they welcome our application, but they want to see a partnership with the city.”
Mapps disagreement with Friends of Frog Ferry’s stance that the 2023 RTP plan has no limit to the number of projects that can be placed on the list. However, he did not provide any specific reason as to why a limit may exist.
“I’m busy trying to figure out how to cut $32 million from PBOT’s budget,” Mapps said. “That’s about a third of our discretionary dollars, which is a challenge. Which also means that expanding and creating a new mode of transportation, even one which I think would be a great benefit to our community, is awfully difficult.”
Bladholm said during Wednesday’s meeting that the project does not plan to request any money from the city while it looks to launch a pilot program for the service. Friends of Frog Ferry is also unsure if PBOT is the appropriate city agency to oversee the project, she said.
“We don’t really feel this should be a PBOT project, as PBOT has no ferry knowledge, no ownership of the docks, and no jurisdiction over the access to/from the docks,” Bladholm said. “Portland Parks owns the two docks (Cathedral Park and Riverplace). The other likely lead bureaus would be Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, which has very supportive staff, Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, for which there is a $100M clean transit budget, or Prosper Portland, to promote economic development and community vitality.”
Bladholm added that it’s also unusual for a city to have just one transportation agency and that the city’s current system is designed to “curtail innovation from new operators.”
“If you look at other cities the size of Portland, there are an average of 17 public transit operators,” she said. “Last I heard, San Francisco has 27 transit operators. Portland is unique in that all transit operating dollars go to TriMet and as a region, we make it very difficult to bring a new transit operator into the area — as this process illustrates. TriMet has clearly said they don’t want to own or operate a ferry.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler said Wednesday that the Portland City Council will continue to privately discuss the possibility of taking a vote to add the ferry project to the 2023 plan. The Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation must finalize the five-year plan by December. If the ferry project makes the list, Friends of Frog Ferry will begin applying for federal funding to get a pilot program running sometime between the fall of 2026 and spring of 2027.
“We’ll talk amongst ourselves,” Wheeler said.