Study greenlights Willamette River passenger ferry service
Clackamas County commuters living in Milwaukie, Lake Oswego and Oregon City could become the benficiaries of a new transportation option in the next few years if they're looking to get to downtown Portland or Vancouver.
The Friends of Frog Ferry — a nonprofit looking at the feasibility of bringing a passenger ferry service to the Willamette and Columbia rivers — released a detailed report Tuesday, Oct. 20, that aims to be a stepping stone toward realizing their vision.
The report commissioned via a $200,000 Oregon Department of Transportation grant and $40,000 from the Portland Bureau of Transportation outlines a potential north-south route with stops in Milwaukie, Lake Oswego and Oregon City at its southern terminus.
It's expected to require around $40 million in capital costs just to start, plus an additional $7 million in operating costs and more than $2.5 million in annual subsidies. Those capital costs would planning, engineering, vessel construction and equipment acquisition, as well as other regulatory requirements.
The ferry is aimed to be operated as a public mode of transportation funded by federal transportation dollars.
The study authored by John Sainsbury of Seattle-based Maritime Consulting Partners finds that it's conceivable the ferry service could work and transport up to 3,000 passengers per day. It would include nine stops between Vancouver and Oregon Citym including one each in Milwaukie and Lake Oswego. Constrictions caused by the height of the Steel Bridge would only allow for boats big enough for approximately 100 passengers with at least six boats in operation each day.
The effort began three years ago when Susan Bladholm established Friends of Frog Ferry to begin exploring the ferry's viability. According to Bladholm, establishing a ferry service would fall in line transportation options provided in many major cities located along a river or bodies of water. Supporters of the proposal have yet to identify what agency would likely pick up the tab for its establishment and operation.
According to Sainsbury, the route would be split up into two sections, Vancouver to downtown Portland and downtown to Oregon City. The idea, he said, would be to ensure that the "headways," the time it takes for the ferry to navigate each section, would not be longer than 30 minutes in each direction. The study looked at potential for using existing docks at each of the nine stops, and in some cases modifications would need to be made for commercial use.
"Are there challenges? Absolutely. But there's also opportunities that we were able to identify," Sainsbury told reporters during a press conference. "The important thing is that the technology is there and through operating processes and procedures, those challenges, there's answers for them."
Among those challenges specifically are barriers on the upper section between Portland and Oregon City such as debris in the river, a narrower river path and residential structures lining the route.
According to Bladholm, one of the biggest questions she's received over the past three years in creating this vision is whether or not creating a ferry would be more expensive than other modes of transportation. Bladholm points out that the study shows 45% of operating costs could be covered by ticket revenue which is expected to be about $5 for the average rider and approximately $3 for seniors, veterans and students. The expected cost per passenger to operate the ferry falls around $8.50.
"We need to secure a public agency sponsor for federal funding. It's imperative in order for this to be a public ferry service," Bladholm said. "We're actively looking for that from our elected leadership. We want to secure funding to make sure we get that triple bottom line and ridership demand report done early in 2021, and then planning and funding a pilot project that would start in June 2022."
Bladholm said Friends of Frog Ferry have already completed quite a bit of work in securing a partnership with a boat builder and have a recommended anchor service between two points that would serve as a proof of concept. The group continues to seek partnerships and sponsors to support their startup costs to secure federal funding.
If all goes according to plan, the ferry could be in operation for region-wide service by summer 2024.
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