Proposed Portland passenger ferry seeks federal funding
It was a make-believe day on the Willamette River recently as a crew of satisfied commuters sipped mochas and microbrews aboard Portland's new passenger ferry.
Well, maybe someday.
In reality, Oct. 14 was on the cold and drizzly side, and a small group of boat backers minded the gap between the Cathedral Park dock and the uncovered deck of a regular cabin cruiser — not some gleaming new vessel with 70 indoor seats.
The long-running campaign to sell the public — and a multiplex of government officials — on a new Frog Ferry is facing another crucial leap. On Oct. 6, the nonprofit behind the project submitted a formal application requesting $2.7 million in grant dollars from the Federal Transportation Administration's dedicated passenger ferry fund.
Susan Bladhom, founder and president of Friends of Frog Ferry, said the city of Portland agreed to be the fiscal sponsor for the grant application. A decision is expected by the end of December.
"A strong community really needs to have a strong transportation infrastructure," said Bladholm, who has pushed the project forward since 2018. "And that's why we've continued to build momentum even during a really challenging time."
The route of the much-discussed project is now proposed to link the St. Johns area with Riverplace Marina, 0315 S.W. Montgomery St., near the southern edge of Tom McCall Waterfront Park. As proposed, the ferry would offer trips in both directions, with the ship departing hourly from Cathedral Park from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then from downtown from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
That would make the ferry perfect as a commuter service for what Frog Ferry says is 300 OHSU employees who live in St. Johns and Cathedral Park, as well as a "substantial" number of PSU students and staff. Additionally, the service would still be relatively convenient for tourists planning a day trip. Tickets will costs $5 per trip or $125 monthly.
The route will take 25 minutes one-way, serving some 18,000 residents in the two northerly neighborhoods.
"The Frog Ferry system isn't just for the people on the water. It's really energizing this river that runs right down the center of our city," said James Paulson, the group's board chair. "It's for everybody in the whole area to use."
Eventually, Bladholm says, the ferry system will boast as many as nine stops from Vancouver, Washington to the Oregon Convention Center and OMSI, before cruising into the suburbs of Milwaukie, Lake Oswego and Oregon City.
"We have continued to build a lot of support from business leaders, from elected officials, to include Portland City Council," said Bladholm. "This is absolutely doable."
The total price tag for a two-year pilot is estimated at nearly $10 million. That accounts for the cost to design, build and lease a clean diesel passenger ferry sleek enough to pass under eight bridges, as well as additions to the Cathedral Park boat ramp.
Frog Ferry plans to add a temporary weather shelter to the park, two-way passenger flow, and a railing on the narrow gangplank stretching into the water, plus a "flexi-float temporary dock" expansion in the water. Riverplace Marina is not believed to need any significant changes.
"For us, it's really about getting people from point A to point B safely," said Heather Linn, chief of customer experience for Frog Ferry. "The other add-on is moments of delight."
During the recent excursion and test run, representatives from Sen. Ron Wyden's office, the Oregon Department of State Lands, Portland Parks & Recreation, a city commissioner's office and Harbor Master Sean Whalen gathered onboard to check out the potential ride.
Whalen pointed out the spot where shipbuilder Gunderson will drop a new barge into the water next week, as well as the massive Princess Cruises vessel undergoing repairs at Vigor Industrial. Others spied a bald eagle.
The view from the boat, impressive to any landlubber, shows how Portland could reactivate the waterway and put the Columbia River to work solving woes from the city's worsening roads.
But for now, Frog Ferry remains a leap of faith.
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