By Don MacGillivray
Farsighted leaders have for many years, dreamed of ferrying commuters and tourists on the rivers around the region. Water-borne commuting remains a desirable option, but it will take significant work and resources on the part of knowledgeable people, government, and a willing public to make it happen.
Still, it is a unique way to get to places difficult to reach by other types of vehicles. It would turn development toward Portland’s aquatic environments instead of the streets.
Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver B. C. and many major cities around the world have water taxis and other hydrovehicles filling a variety of special uses.
A dedicated group of innovators are involved in the development of a water taxi for this region. There would be one basic route to begin with; however it is expected to expand and improve as it gains acceptance.
Imagine a vehicle able to handle four hundred passengers commuting to work every day to significantly reduce cars that commute daily on local bridges and streets.
The Friends of Frog Ferry (FFF) is the non-for profit corporation formed to develop an aquatic taxi line from Vancouver to Lake Oswego and it’s partnering with a variety of local public agencies, from the Port of Vancouver to Travel Portland.
The ferry is the brainchild of Susan Bladholm, co-founder of Cycle Oregon and a long time transportation enthusiast. Much of her work has been involved with bicycle advocacy and operations in Oregon and she has experience with the state and local governments on transportation issues.
At its beginning, there will be three vessels that would carry one hundred and fifty passengers each. A low profile will be required to traverse under the Steel Bridge without raising the lift span.
There are expected to be eight stops on the sixteen mile Vancouver to Portland route with proposed stops at St. Johns, NW Portland, Swan Island, Salmon Springs downtown, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, OHSU/Zidell waterfront, Lake Oswego, and Oregon City.
It would be nearly a forty minute trip that would accommodate pedestrians and bicycles. After it gets going, the service could be expanded along the Columbia River in both directions.
It is estimated a round trip ticket would be thirty dollars plus, per person. With future efficiencies, fares may be reduced, making the water taxi more affordable.
The costs of infrastructure such as docks, terminals, and the taxi boats will all be significant investments. Metropolitan water taxi services worldwide receive public assistance and grants and public subsidies will be required to begin operation in Portland. Local political support is likely from both the City of Portland and the State of Oregon.
The Frog Ferry organization has developed a feasibility study and a financial plan. The ferry is estimated to initially cost $1.3 million and Mayor Ted Wheeler included $200,000 in his proposed 2019/20 city budget.
It would help pay for studies concerning environmental, social and economic impacts, as well as the development of the financial and operational plans. Frog Ferry then hopes to receive funding from the legislature. With finished plans, federal funding would likely be forthcoming and ferry service could be operating soon after 2022.
Frog Ferry has a coalition of nearly five hundred supporters which includes key business owners like the Zidell family in SW Portland. Several significant transportation commissioners support in the project. The owner of the Portland Spirit has offered to buy the first boat that could cost several millions of dollars.
Native Americans have always used the Willamette and Columbia Rivers as a primary transportation network for commerce in the region. When pioneers arrived, the vehicles for transportation changed from canoes to steamboats and wagons. It wasn’t until the railroads arrived that river traffic eventually died out in the early years of the 20th century.
River ferries were important to the early transportation network for fifty years and a few still operate in Oregon today. Bridges across the Willamette River were not completed until the late 19th century and the first Portland bridge across the Columbia River was opened twenty-five years later. Then the automobile replaced the early ferry service and much of the early river traffic.
After World War II, a few river boats were used for work on the river and for occasional passenger trips, but none of these were regularly accessible to the public. Then, in the early 1980s, a tourist river experience started, but it wasn’t until the year 2000 that several riverboats were regularly available for sightseeing trips and private cruises.
A water taxi has the possibility to have a major impact on the development of the Willamette River shoreline and could turn interests toward river-oriented recreational and commercial activities involving people using the river.
Southwest riverfront properties will have a great more development of housing, hotels, shops, restaurants, and development with river access. The Pearl District could benefit from similar developments around the Fremont Bridge, Terminal 2, and the Olympic Mills.
There is a large effort to acquire the Terminal 2 site for a new major league baseball stadium that would benefit from river access. The Con-Way property and the Post Office area are expected to be developed in the near future.
On the other side of the river, the Convention Center now has a new six hundred room Hyatt Regency hotel, which makes river access desirable.
The Vancouver Waterfront is undergoing a major $1.5 billion mixed use development that will transform the area.
The master plan proposes 3,300 new residential units, over a million square feet of class-A office space, and an appropriate amount of hotel, restaurants, and retail space.
A water taxi may have little effect on the commuter traffic situation, but it will relieve a few lucky drivers of an increasingly difficult drive. This alternative is long overdue and if it is successful, would be a major Portland attraction.