The Ferry Godmother

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The Portland Spirit docks at the Salmon Springs Fountain, one of the proposed ferry stops.

An enthusiastic economic development veteran leads the charge for a Portland-Vancouver river connection

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Flying over the Willamette River one day for her student pilot training, Susan Bladholm had an epiphany. What if a ferry ran the length of the waterway from Vancouver to Portland’s South Waterfront? Everywhere was clogged with congestion, except the river.

“What I keep throwing out there,” Bladholm says, “is why does every other river city in America have one of these but us?”

The effusive economic development and marketing expert has been tirelessly campaigning for the idea. As the former marketing director for Port of Portland and co-founder of Cycle Oregon, Bladholm is no stranger to how Oregonians move about. Her vision calls for a boat that would carry 149 passengers and bikes, and make up to eight stops along the Willamette River between Vancouver’s Terminal 1 and downtown Portland. The trip would run 38 minutes one way.

Bladholm has assembled a coalition of some 550 ferry enthusiasts. After hundreds of meetings, she says, she’s been promised more than $400,000 worth of pro bono support from lawyers, lobbyists, graphic designers, social media managers, boat captains and others. “It’s really a grassroots effort,” she says. “All these folks are the best in class at the work they do.”

frogferryPossible ferry stops. Credit: Joan McGuire

Industry is also throwing its weight behind the project. Shipbuilder Vigor Industrial and Daimler Trucks North America, two of Oregon’s largest public companies, have pledged their support.

Despite the technical expertise and private-sector support already onboard, so to speak, the ferry project faces hurdles. It might not prove as efficient as bolstering bus and light rail service. Even with business support, such a large transportation project will require significant federal funding, along with state funds, for docks and operating costs.

“We’d be competing against new service in the Seattle area, or the Bay Area, or the Potomac,” Bladholm says. “We really want to make sure we’re not competing against other priority transit projects in the Portland area.”

Andrew Hoan, CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, says the ferry can complement existing transportation options and provide a resilient transport in case of disaster. “Alleviating congestion is a top priority for the business community,” Hoan says. “All of the above in terms of transportation should be incorporated.”

The Zidell family, which owns part of the Southwest waterfront, including a promising site for a ferry terminal, also came on board, offering $10,000 for feasibility studies. In a letter of support for the ferry, the Zidell family said it would fit into their vision of a thriving neighborhood on the former Zidell Yards industrial site. The plan was tabled recently due to mushrooming costs, however, and the Zidells are in talks with the city about the design.

Central Eastside Industrial Council, a group of businesses in the area, wrote a letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler arguing that bikes, buses, scooters and all other means of mitigating congestion are still not cutting it. The businesses noted that small 150-passenger vessels like the one Bladholm proposes make up the fastest-growing segment of the ferry market, and that a ferry could rack up wins for tourism and economic development.

Oregon Health & Science University, essentially a small city of 18,000 employees and only 4,000 parking spaces, has no shortage of alternative transportation schemes: bike valet, aerial tram, carpooling apps. But its transportation managers say a ferry might provide a critical missing link. After all, some of their employees already kayak to work.

Ferries can be difficult to pencil out, Portland-based transit consultant Jarrett Walker writes, especially in the presence of competing transit lines over nearby bridges (aka everywhere in the City of Bridges). To pay for itself, a ferry needs to minimize stops and ticket prices to fill every boat with customers.

The last-mile connections, bus lines or shuttles to get people to and from the ferry terminals are difficult to fit within the neat grid logic of the existing bus network. This connectivity problem is one of the toughest for ferry advocates to solve.

Not surprisingly then, Walker gives a tentative thumbs down to the Portland-Vancouver ferry. He favors extending the MAX light rail to Vancouver instead. “It’s the only thing with the capacity and efficiency to actually handle the demand,” Walker writes in an email. “It’s already more than half built, and (unlike ferries) it can penetrate both cities to get to people’s actual destinations.” 

A ferry would likely have lower capital costs, but higher operating expenses than a light rail line. A 2006 feasibility study for Metro estimated capital costs of up to $1 million for each ferry terminal, and annual operating costs of around $3.4 million for the system. The failed Columbia River Crossing plan that would have funded a new I-5 bridge and light rail was estimated at $3.2 billion, but a ferry would require a higher operating subsidy than bus or light rail service.

A MAX extension would be aided by the I-5 bridge overhaul backed by Oregon and Washington public officials. Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s latest budget proposal includes $17.5 million in funding for the bridge replacement.

“All these things need to be considered,” Hoan says. “I don’t think one is better than the other.”  

Ferries might be subject to Walker’s theory of “elite projection,” in which well-off businesspeople fund forms of  transport that seem fun to them, but are less efficient than true transit workhorses. “The romantic and scenic qualities of ferries always generate support, just as happens with rail services, but service must be useful, compared to your alternatives,” writes Walker in his blog. It takes around 38 minutes to get from downtown Portland to Vancouver on the C-Tran 105 bus during rush hour, according to Trimet’s online trip planner. That’s about the same length as a ferry trip. 

The 2006 feasibility study identified a lack of usable docks, river debris, bridge clearances and prohibitively high operating costs compared to bus service as reasons to wake up from the ferry dreams. It’s extremely expensive to develop waterfront land for not only docks, but bus stations and possibly parking lots for connections.

“I didn’t understand how much interest and passion would be behind it. We caught a little bit of a wave.”
—Susan Bladholm, Friends of Frog Ferry

Bladholm and other supporters of the project say a lot has changed since 2006. “The timing wasn’t right then,” Bladholm says. “We didn’t have the population density and congestion and travel times.”

Dense development has clustered along both sides of the river, from Pearl District waterfront apartments to tech headquarters on the Central Eastside. Vancouver’s waterfront is also in the midst of rapid transformation with a new park along the Columbia River and a hotel, public market and additional office and retail space planned near Terminal 1. Dock infrastructure has improved somewhat. Meanwhile, metro-area traffic congestion has reached critical levels, enough, Bladholm says, to justify both a robust transit system and a ferry.

The next year will bring a better understanding of the project’s potential. The Portland Bureau of Transportation and Bladholm’s Friends of Frog Ferry, a newly minted 501(c)3 nonprofit, will launch new feasibility studies in 2019. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has expressed his support for the studies, but Bladholm says she’s still looking for backers for the $650,000 needed. 

If there’s one thing the upstart ferry coalition isn’t lacking, it’s enthusiasm, from industry titans and everyday commuters alike. “I didn’t understand how much interest and passion would be behind it,” Bladholm says. “We caught a little bit of a wave.”

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