The low-slung Steel Bridge — and the looming possibility of bridge lifts — could be the snag in an ambitious plan to transform the city's main waterway into a new transit corridor.
The proposed Frog Ferry could move roughly 150 people and their bicycles (but no cars) between downtown Portland and Vancouver, Washington in about 38 minutes when traveling against the tide of the Willamette River, according to founder Susan Bladholm.
"Do we think we can beat that time? Probably, we're trying to be conservative," she said during a Tuesday, Nov. 27 news conference onboard the Portland Spirit. "This is a point of being curious. Let's learn more. Rather than saying it's too hard or it's too expensive, let's equip ourselves with facts and data."
There would be a cup of joe available for morning commuters — and a bar stocked with microbrews for nightlife revelers traveling between docks at the Salmon Street Springs and the Port of Vancouver's Terminal 1, which is adjacent to the Interstate 5 bridge and a new waterfront development. Some people have even asked Bladholm if they can bring yoga mats.
But only a single-deck boat would be able to shimmy under the 100-year-old Steel Bridge during every season without snarling auto traffic, and the Frog Ferry group has not yet released exact specifications for its proposed starter fleet.
"It is possible to design a vessel that will not require the Steel Bridge to lift, which is the primary choke point on the Willamette going north," affirmed Dan Yates, owner of the Portland Spirit and several other sight-seeing cruise lines.
"I think it's absolutely critical… utilizing this great right of way, which currently there's not a single boat on, unlike the roads, which are full," he said.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is ready to shoulder that weight, apparently, promising via an emissary that the city will chip in its share of the $650,000 needed to fund the five feasibility studies required to qualify for a federal subsidy. Mayoral chief of staff Michael Cox says they "have not identified a specific dollar amount or pool of funds."
Other funding requests are going out to Metro, the state legislature, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the city of Vancouver.
Bladholm said Frog Ferry "1.0" would only include two stops, but she can envision future stations on Portland's east side, Milwaukie, Lake Oswego, Troutdale and the locks at West Linn. Boats can be added like buses, she noted, but the starter fleet would probably be three ships with only two in operation at a time.
"If the studies don't bear out, then we're not going to go ahead and implement this," Bladholm said.
Charlene Zidell, a scion of the shipbuilding family that seeks to redevelop 33 acres in Portland's South Waterfront, is an enthusiastic supporter of the ferry service. She hopes the river can be used as a museum, noting that the Willamette was designated one of 14 heritage rivers across the U.S. in 1997.
Daimler Trucks employs 3,000 people in its office building complex on Swan Island, but has to offer bus passes, van carpools and help planning bicycle routes to entice workers to the area.
Daimler real estate manager Matt Markstaller says his commute to West Linn can take an hour by car, but drops to just 30 minutes when he rides a Ski-Doo to work in the summer.
"I've got some tug boats and geese and rowing shells in the morning, and some recreational boaters in the afternoon," he said, "but while the roads and the rails are full, the river simply has a lot of capacity."
Frog Ferry continues to study ticket prices for the public-private service, and says there are no plans to add car ferries in the area.
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