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WL officials receptive to idea of regional ferry along Willamette River, though the project still needs funding

To envision the future of transportation in the Portland metro area, Susan Bladholm needed a bird's eye view.

As a student pilot for the last 12 years, Bladholm took off from the Aurora Airport and flew countless times over the "wide open" Willamette and Columbia Rivers. When she traveled into the Puget Sound region in Washington or up to Vancouver, British Columbia, however, those waterways were packed with passenger ferries.

"Why," Bladholm wondered, "don't we have that in Portland?"

Bladholm, a marketing executive with prior experience at Business Oregon and the Port of Portland, decided to change that by founding Frog Ferry, a new company that aims to create a ferry service running up and down the region along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. She appeared before the West Linn City Council Nov. 13 to present her ideas.

"When you look at our transportation planning throughout the region, most have seen the river as an impediment, as an obstacle to get around or over, rather than embracing (it)," Bladholm said. "I don't believe this will cure all of (the traffic) issues; it's one piece of the puzzle."

The ferries would be targeted primarily for commuters, though they could also be used by tourists and for emergency response according to Bladholm. She said the boats would be 26 meters long and could carry around 600 passengers per commute.

That equates to roughly 500 cars, which means each ferry trip would remove around 3.5 miles of congestion, according to Bladholm.

Routes for the ferry would be introduced in three iterations. Route 1.0 would run nonstop between Portland and Vancouver, a trip that takes about 40 minutes. Route 2.0 would add at least eight stops along both sides of the Willamette River, with possible stops from Northwest Portland to OMSI, OHSU, Lake Oswego and Oregon City. Finally, Route 3.0 would introduce stops at places like the Columbia River Gorge, Troutdale and PDX.

An official launch and press conference about the Frog Ferry effort is scheduled for Nov. 27. From there, Frog Ferry will aim to raise about $1.3 million from public and private sources for feasibility studies and the creation of a financial plan.

"Our rivers are so underutilized in so many ways, so I couldn't be more excited about something like this," Mayor Russ Axelrod said.

City Council President Brenda Perry wondered if the project would rely on the Willamette Falls Locks being reopened, and if the size of the locks would cause problems for the ferries passing through.

"(Route) 1.0 is all north of the locks," Bladholm said. "In terms of expansion, that would rely on the locks opening. The logistics for the locks, we haven't done that due diligence (yet)."

"Going through the locks takes about 40 minutes, so you'd have to think about that," Axelrod added.

The City of Portland conducted a feasibility study on a possible ferry service in 2006, and opted not to pursue it in large part because of "a lack of useable docking and terminal facilities." However, Bladholm said Frog Ferry has identified docks for Route 1.0, while adding that other factors like population growth and technological advances have made ferries a more palatable option since that study was done.

"Let's find out what it costs, (and) if it's doable," she said.

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