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Mayor Rick Scholl makes a pitch for a ferry system, citing emergency preparedness

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl discusses the topic of establishing a ferry system during a City Council meeting Wednesday, March 21, which garnered support from a majority of the council. Councilors, however, cautioned that moving discussions forward could be difficult. Discussions about a possible ferry in Columbia County have resurfaced with the St. Helens City Council at the suggestion of the mayor.

During a City Council work session Wednesday, March 21, Mayor Rick Scholl began a soft pitch about proposed ferry service to transport people between Oregon and Washington.

Scholl began the conversation by stating a few of the major benefits he saw with a ferry service — primarily emergency preparedness and as a service to the residents of both states who commute for work.

"I know I'm just a little mayor from St. Helens, but don't let this be a 'Katrina moment,' and I want people to hear that," Scholl said. "Washington should want this more than we do. They're really divided off from the rest of the country by the Columbia River."

When later asked to clarify what he meant by the statement, Scholl explained that establishing a system to get people across a body of water in the event of an earthquake would be essential.

Just prior to the pitch, St. Helens resident Steve Topaz began to speak during the visitors comments section of the meeting, where public input is limited to five minutes per person. Topaz, who spoke about the benefits and negatives of a ferry system, was asked to stop speaking by Council Chair Doug Morten, who noted Topaz had been reading from prepared statements for nearly 10 minutes.

The two exchanged a few heated words before Scholl explained that he invited Topaz to speak on the topic. Topaz, however, left before the council began its own discussion.

Scholl is not the first person to propose a ferry system in St. Helens. In 2014, City Councilor Keith Locke also proposed a ferry system, an effort that quickly stalled. The costs of running a ferry service can be expensive. A ferry in Wahkiakum County, Washington, that operates between Puget Sound and Westport in northwest Clatsop County, cost nearly $500,000 annually in 2014, and was heavily subsidized with contributions from the county government of $120,000.

In 2003, commissioners from Woodland, Washington, also approached the city of St. Helens regarding a ferry system, according to media reports from The Longview Daily News.

During discussions Wednesday, Locke said he still favored the idea.

"I think it's always been a good idea," Locke said, and then referenced Scholl. "If you or someone wants to lead the charge, I don't have an issue."

Other council members also expressed interest but emphasized the difficulties of moving forward, which would require the involvement of numerous public agencies and support from state agencies.

"What Keith alluded to is that, getting people on board who are outside of our community, that's the issue," Morten said, noting previous discussions with elected officials that didn't produce results. "It seems to me like it just falls on deaf ears no matter where we go."

One of the first steps would be to pursue some type of transportation or feasibility study to identify associated costs and the most appropriate location for a ferry, the councilors discussed.

"I think we're all in support, but it's a huge task to move it forward," Council member Susan Conn said.

Following Wednesday's discussion, the council agreed to draft a proposal in favor of pursuing a transportation study that included a ferry component.

Councilor Ginny Carlson was not in favor of the proposal.

Carlson said many residents would likely be concerned with the potential impact on traffic that could result from a ferry service being used to transport commuters and vehicles.

"There's a contingent of people who don't want I-5 in their backyard," Carlson said. "We need more community swell other than what I've heard in this room."

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