It's a sink-or-swim moment for the fledgling ferry service between Portland and Vancouver.
Portland City Council will vote on Wednesday, May 22 whether to pay out $200,000 in one-time general fund dollars for a feasibility study of water taxis, which would move tourists and commuters (but not their cars) across the state line.
Mayor Ted Wheeler has included the money in his proposed budget, while Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says funding for the Frog Ferry and James Beard Public Market, among other things, could be better spent elsewhere.
"Both may be excellent programs, but if they're so excellent, private business should fund it, and they should come back and tell us what they've found," Hardesty said during a May 14 work session. "Maybe there was an agreement before I got here, but nobody told me about it."
For Frog Ferry founder Susan Bladholm, it's deja vu. She had hoped for $350,000 from the 2018-19 fiscal year budget, but the line item was removed from the final city spending plan.
"We understand there are always going to be choices to be made," Bladholm said. "$200,000 is a lot of money to me, but when it comes to transportation infrastructure, it's a small amount."
The ferry service hopes to net an additional $500,000 from the state legislature as soon as three weeks from now, but lawmakers have signaled they won't cough up the dough unless Portland demonstrates their commitment first.
Down the road, the Federal Transit Administration's passenger ferry fund might pay up to 85% of Frog Ferry's construction costs. Bladholm notes that 40 states tap into the grant money currently, but not Oregon.
Frog Ferry says it needs to complete four studies to truly launch.
Of those, a demand modeling study is already underway at Metro. TriMet and the Portland Bureau of Transportation each chipped in $10,000 in funding, while Frog Ferry says it contributed a software package and parameters worth $250,000.
The city's $200,000 would help pay for the other three studies, which look at best practices, environmental, social and economic impacts, and would craft finance and operations plans.
"Participation from the city of Portland is really critical to leverage other funds, both within the region, the state and more long-term for capital infrastructure from the feds," Bladholm said.
Portland last completed a water taxi study in 2006, and Bladholm says the region's traffic and dock facilities have changed significantly since then. Ferry builders have also developed new technology that could help a craft sneak under the Steel Bridge and meet low weight requirements designed to protect riverbanks.
As first publicly proposed, Frog Ferry would chug between Vancouver and the Salmon Street Springs in just 38 minutes, compared with a car commute that Bladholm says takes 70 minutes.
A total of nine stops are initially planned, but the details of constructing ticket offices and docks are unknown.
The dock in Lake Oswego is "beautiful," Bladholm explains, but significant upgrades would be needed to create suitable gangplanks in Oregon City, Milwaukie and at OMSI. There's also a lack in Vancouver — parking.
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