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Frog Ferry takes step forward with release of feasibility report

Posted by on October 20th, 2020 at 3:15 pm

Conceptual plan for ferry terminal at Cathedral Park in St. Johns.

“That first and final mile is just huge. And I can really see Biketown being a key part of this, especially with e-bikes.”
— Susan Bladholm, Frog Ferry

A public passenger ferry system that would serve 9 stops between Vancouver and Oregon City on the Willamette River would cost about $40 million to launch and would need about $7 million a year to operate. Those are just two takeaways from the Operational Feasibility Study and Finance Plan released by Frog Ferry this morning (PDF).

Frog Ferry, a nonprofit that first floated the idea of a carfree ferry system in 2017, has made major progress toward their goals since we first covered them two years ago.

At the online press conference Tuesday morning, Frog Ferry Founder and President Susan Bladholm said ferries offer, “An amazing opportunity to expand our transportation network at a fraction of the cost of other modes.” Bladholm then shared a new promotional video where a narrator said, “Imagine getting to work faster, while feeling your heart beat slower.” “Welcome to Frog Ferry, a walk-on, walk-off boat that will whisk people up and down the Portland area with a vision to go even further… The time for Frog Ferry is now. The river is our transportation future.”

Bladholm and her supporters have reason to be excited. Since 2017 they’ve put together an impressive list of backers and board members, secured a $200,000 planning grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation (which included $40,000 from the Portland Bureau of Transportation), claim to have raised $750,000 from donors and added 1,600 people to the Friends of Frog Ferry support group, have used the equivalent of over $5 million in pro bono management and marketing work and have published three reports (best practices, demand modeling and now operational finances and feasibility).

Here are the main takeaways from their latest report:

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  • Recommendation of seven vessels (with different sizes south and north of OMSI based on river environments and wake zone regulations).
  • Average 3,000 passengers a day and 800,000 per year
  • Capital Costs ($40 million): Planning, engineering, vessel and equipment acquisition, and regulatory requirements
  • Operating Costs ($6.8 million): Labor, fuel, insurance, maintenance, technology, communications and training
  • Annual subsidy: $2.5 million (ticket revenue covers 45% of costs)
  • Cost per passenger: $8.50
  • Average passenger ticket price: $5 per passenger | $3 for honored passenger

The route would be split into two sections, a lower river route (north of downtown) and upper river route (south of downtown). Five terminals would be included in the “core route”: Vancouver (Terminal 1), Cathedral Park, Salmon Street, OHSU, and Lake Oswego. Time estimates for a trip between Vancouver and Salmon Street Fountain would be about 44 minutes on an express route and 55 minutes with a stop at Cathedral Park. Headways between ferries would be 30 minutes max.

The boats would vary between 90 and 65 feet long and would have room for 100 and 70 passengers respectively. In an interview last week Bladholm told me the smaller vessels would have space to park 12 bikes and the larger ones would be able to fit about 15 bikes.

The estimated number of people who will ride bikes to the docks is unknown at this point. Bladholm hopes to complete a more detailed modeling study next year. One thing we do know is that many riverfront locations are not easy to get to by bike (or foot for that matter). Cathedral Park in St. Johns for instance is expected to be a key Frog Ferry station. Unfortunately the riverfront is down a steep hill and the dock would require people to cross heavy railroad tracks. “That first and final mile is just huge,” Bladholm said when I asked her about this. “And I can really see Biketown [bike share] being a key part of this, especially with e-bikes.”

The report acknowledges the important role of bicycle access, bike parking, bike share, and walking. People on foot should be able to reach ferry terminals “uninhibited” and bicycle access at both ends of a trip, “will be of critical importance” the report states. Since the boats won’t be able to fit everyone’s bikes, “Secure bike parking in close proximity to the terminal is essential,” it adds.

Commuters were expected to be the top user segment of the new ferries. Even with major commute behavior changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, Bladholm believes there’s a need for ferries. Using the Cathedral Park example, she said her contacts at OHSU tallied about 500 employees a day coming from St. Johns to the south Waterfront campus and Marquam Hill. Today that number is around 300. “That count is great for us,” Bladholm said, while explaining how a typical bus commute would be over an hour and a ferry ride would be just 22 minutes.

Addressing the Covid impact in a recent newsletter to supporters, Bladholm said, “Our public agencies are recalibrating planning strategies and looking at low-cost, high-value ways to build our economic vitality while improving our environmental footprint. This is an opportunity to revisit our values in a more meaningful way, rather than continuing with the status quo of transit planning based on what has been done in the past.”

Beyond commuters, Frog Ferry’s three other target markets are: first responders and “citizens in distress” during an emergency, locals running errands or meeting friends, and tourists.

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Bladholm in the Zoom press conference this morning.

Bladholm said she’s comfortable being in the role of pushing for something new that gets dismissed by some people. Back in 1987 when she was 22 and fresh out of college, Bladholm took a job working with Oregon’s first-ever state tourism director. Her first assignment was to look into a new thing called Cycle Oregon that her boss had read about in the newspaper. Bladholm dove head-first into the job and traveled to Iowa to learn about large group rides first-hand at the legendary RAGBRAI event. When Cycle Oregon launched in 1988 Bladholm was its first ride director and she served in that role for three years.

“Pre Cycle Oregon we had no cycling culture here, let alone no infrastructure,” Bladholm shared with me last week. “So this is so reminiscent of it, it’s just that I’ve got the benefit of being 32 years older.” “We’ve been backed into that corner so many times and told, ‘You’ve got to do this, you got to do that. Oh, here are three more things you’ve got to do’. Well we’ve done them now,” she added, confidently.

Bladholm will need this confidence to take the major steps that remain before any boats get on the water.

Frog Ferry needs to find a public agency sponsor to help them get in line for major federal funding. So far no one has stepped up. An operational model they’re looking to is something similar to Portland Streetcar Inc., whose director Dan Bower sits on the Frog Ferry board (he also used to be head of active transportation at Portland Bureau of Transportation). The other to-do item atop Bladholm’s list is to plan and fund a pilot project that would begin in 2022.

If all goes according to plan Frog Ferry will be in region-wide operation by summer 2024.

(Below is the Frog Ferry promo video released today.)

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Doug Klotz
Subscriber

A vanity project for a well-connected person, who, so far, has gotten governments to give her organization $200,000. We should be spending the money on projects with proven results, not this pipe dream.

Steve Hash
Guest
Steve Hash

Fingers crossed…

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

I can’t believe we’ve already wasted $250k on this thing. I guess the flipside of TriMets garbage service out to St. Johns makes the ferry look somewhat reasonable.

Jon
Guest
Jon

It would seem there are a lot better ways to spend $40,000,000 in startup costs and $7,000,000 per year to operate. Bus Rapid transit with electric buses maybe?

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

If there is any federal subsidy, and given that it is transit there probably will be, then the system will need to be ADA as well. It’s not impossible, Venice has a fully ADA-compatible canal frequent-bus system, as is the Vancouver SeaBus on the Burrard Inlet.

J_R
Guest
J_R

It would be fun to take a ferry ride – on a nice day with a gentle breeze and warm weather. I’d love to take out-of-town guests for the entire trip from Oregon City to Vancouver. As for regular commuting, you’ve got to be kidding. I don’t think they can keep to the planned schedule or attract nearly the ridership they estimate.
Sorry, but there’s been too much spent on this already. Give us something useful like more signalized crossings for bicyclists and pedestrians, protected bike lanes, or return of fareless square.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Completely unnecessary and inefficient.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I love it!

dan
Guest
dan

On the one hand, given what highways cost, this looks like a bargain. On the other hand, I agree with most here that this is a boondoggle that won’t move the number of people claimed in the time claimed. Would probably be cheaper to buy some rolling stock and run commuter trains down the Amtrak lines from Vancouver to Union Station.

Zach
Guest
Zach

Awesome work. I admire the hustle. Very visionary concept. Major props to Susan!

JR
Guest
JR

In general I like ferries. They make plenty of sense for locations separated by bodies of water. Portland was full of ferries before bridges were built. Wouldn’t it make more sense to build a new bridge over Columbia River with dedicated bike and transit facilities? It could carry tens of thousands of people much faster (if designed properly) and allow for transit that takes people into the center of destination areas rather than the fringe. It would allow for improved mobility and accessibility to places where people want to go. Also buses and trains can stop to unload and load passengers in less than 30 seconds, as opposed to 3 minutes.

I would poke at the travel times provided. Do they account for the time it takes for a boat to dock and leave the dock? The ferries in Seattle slow down considerably in order to properly dock and while I’m always amazed at the professionalism of the boat pilots, it’s not a quick operation in even the best of weather.

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

The northern section doesn’t make sense because the river doesn’t go the right way. E-Bikes (esp the 28mph kind) get the trip done in half the time from Vancouver to Portland and get you door to door.

The southern section mainly serves wealthy suburbs, so I think there are some equity concerns there.

This is obviously true with or without $250k in feasibility study fees.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

I don’t buy the figures above. At over $6 per trip in just operating costs, I don’t see this paying for itself. $40 million spread out over 10 years over 3,000 passengers per day is almost $4 in passenger subsidies per day. That’s on top of the 45% they noted as a baseline subsidy.

No. Just, no.

David DeFauw
Guest
David DeFauw

This is a wonderful idea. In transportation, it is good to have an abundance of options. And compared to the cost of maintaining the road system, which is not free, this is a bargain.

Chris
Guest
Chris

3,000 people per day? That doesn’t seem realistic. It must be 1,500 round trips per day. Even that is a head scratcher. Average cost of a ticket is $5. Now it’s $10 for that round trip. C-tran already does this for $7.70/round trip (less with a monthly ticket).

If the numbers dip below that 3000 level, your subsidies will balloon quickly.

Joe Cortright
Guest

The project’s feeble transportation modeling assumes that we build 1,500 parking spaces (500 each in Vancouver, St. Johns and Oregon City), but the project budget includes zero dollars for parking.
ECONW’s base case suggests as few as 80 passengers per day on the “express” routes here. Also: Frog Ferry’s PDF didn’t show the appendices to the ECONW report that give the details of the traffic modeling.

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

I read that Vancouver is now only a future phase extension vs. a primary phase. Sadly the Vancouver side of things is “asleep at the wheel” in past discussions with major stakeholders and FF. [Seems very similar to how the Fourth Plain B[r]T project got too far along in SOW and the CoV missed greater improvements to the arterial corridor other than spot transit work..vs how PBoT uses TRIMET projects for full corridor reconstruction. Some of this missed work the CoV is now having to fund directly vs FTA/ Feds from what I recently saw in the budget.]

rick
Guest
rick

I would like a ferry, but I would first prefer rebuilt rails between Vancouver, Washington and downtown Portland, Oregon. Why not invest in rail?

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

Not to say that any transportation project should not have daylight applied to it for cost + opportunity.

The pivot to evaluating a foot ferry service is ‘plain smart’ given it builds on the regional investments in improving river water quality and adding economic vitality to our river communities (vs commercial buildings turning their back to the water) and that fact that regional mobility expansion options have been blocked on land: CRC/ I-5, old Westside Highway, and BNSFs unwillingness to update the main rail bridge (RB 9.6) across the Columbia.

There are not too many more alternative regional route options other than say a hovercar service between Pierson and X [Lloyd Center Mall roof]. Furthermore, as we all know we need some sort of lifeline service options in case the big earthquake hits…its always cheaper to do it before a crisis…kinda like having set up the NSC Pandemic Unit before it was needed (but not closing it). We all would have been better off with more options now.

Tony Rebensdorf
Guest
Tony Rebensdorf

As a Vancouver (Wa) resident who is not a driver, this is in my opinion brilliant. Not sure if anyone else has tried crossing the interstate bridge by bike lately, but it is frightening. And I would love to be able to take my kid on day trips to Portland. For the record, I d be just as excited for BRT to Portland. But why not both? Why are we continually subsidizing single occupancy drivers rather than mass transit or biking?

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

And per the “lack of car parking” issue…this is a critical issue only if we keep thinking in the old way…and plus we should embrace the challenges to reach these regionally isolated ferry dock areas by car and instead turn it in to an advantage by not promote regional car par + rides as park of this service.

I have suggested before that this project instead focus on enhanced micro mobility access [plus with limited on board moped/ scooter access – like what one sees on the Amsterdam ferries – this would also allow better programatic access to the gas tax revenues vs. just focusing on bikes and shoe modes].

Make lemons into lemonade vs. funding / building another out of date suburban transit park + ride on our riversides.

dan
Guest
dan

Only half-serious, but there was a commercial hovercraft service across the English Channel for decades. I just looked it up, and their hovercraft ran at 60 knots. For $40M, can we get a couple of those?

Carter Kennedy
Guest
Carter Kennedy

It would be fun, but what problem does it solve? It would provide some convenience to some people but at a big cost. It doesn’t save any energy– it is going to be locked into burning fossil fuel for many years. Only one of its stops- Salmon Street- is within walking distance of any density.

qqq
Guest
qqq

In past discussions, I’ve seen this compared to the Washington State Ferry System, which is huge and popular. The difference is that those ferries are either the only option (to islands) or the fastest option (going directly across the Sound vs. driving all the way around). Those also give you the option of bringing your vehicle with you.

Jack S.
Guest
Jack S.

I’m shocked there is so much naysaying on this idea! I personally love it. It’s another great mode of transportation and could be fun to intertwine with bike rides! It would be super cool for it to stop on Sauvie island, so we can stop biking on the side of hwy 30. A stop on Swan Island would be excellent, there are a ton of people who work there but live far away. I love that it doesn’t allow you to bring a car on board too – makes it cheaper, more efficient, faster, less polluting, less obnoxious, etc etc etc.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

The model for financing ferry service is down in the Bay Area. The Golden Gate Ferry is subsidized by tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge. This came about after it was decided to not add a second deck some decades ago. Several bus lines connect to the Ferry in Larkspur and someday, so will, eventually, the new commuter rail line up to Sonoma county. Time to toll the Columbia River bridges!

Alain L.
Guest
Alain L.

Someone already mentioned a stop at Sauvie, though I’m also wondering why no stop at Swan Island? Is it not an employment center (Daimler, UPS, FedEx, etc.)? I rode the Vancouver BC Seabus frequently, but it holds a lot more passengers and is tied into the public transit system (same as bus fare). Added options are good, but this seems costly for the numbers being served.

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

A rough comparison:

Route Seattle–Bainbridge Island
System length 8.6 miles (13.8 km)
Travel time 30 – 35 minutes (2018)
Yearly ridership 6,320,820 passengers (2015)
Cost $16.4 for a standard vehicle; $9.05 for a person going from seattle to bainbridge island
Capacity 2,500 passengers and a maximum of 202 vehicles

Route Vancouver T1-Cathedral Park
System length 8.85 NM (10.1844 miles) (16.39 km)
Estimated Travel time 22 minutes, 8 seconds and an additional 3 minutes of dwell time for ~25 minutes
Yearly ridership ?
Cost $5 for passenger, $3 for honored citizen
Capacity 70 to 100 passengers

Kent
Guest
Kent

Sheeh. I live in the Vancouver area and literally no one is going to use this for commuting. If you want to make some new investment in commuting infrastructure between Vancouver and Portland it would make a lot more sense to run frequent commuter trains between Vancouver Amtrak station and Portland’s Union Station. And even that wouldn’t be all that useful

qqq
Guest
qqq

The chart shows a speed of 24 kts, or 28 mph. That sounds incredibly fast for the southern half of the route (downtown to LO) and especially from OHSU to LO. There’s no way that speed would be safe around the Willamette Park boat launch, or Sellwood dock and Sellwood Bridge, or along Ross Island, with so many kayakers, standup paddlers, sailboats (the Willamette Sailing Club is in that area) etc.

There are also several no-wake zones in that area—boat launches, docks, three houseboat communities. I don’t know if any boats exist that can go that fast without exceeding legal wake generation. Wakes are also incredibly damaging to natural areas–such as the entire western shoreline of Ross Island.

There’ve been recent efforts to increase no-wake zones and reduce boat speeds in this stretch. This goes the opposite direction.

Assuming the 24 kts is an average, that also means they’re assuming max speeds much higher, since each port means slowing down to zero then getting back up to speed.

The speeds just don’t sound believable, and even if true, don’t sound desirable for safety or natural resource protection.

Ben G
Guest
Ben G

How it’s being billed as a commute option seems far fetched. But I love the idea of being able to travel by river. Seems like if FF could find fed dollars and pay for part of its operations itself. It could be a nice addition to Portland. If anything I would take some friends on it when they come to town for something reasonably cheap and yet memorable.

Would probably be smart to start smaller, eliminating the two far out stops and prove it a viable concept first. Then add an express line with those later on.

Nick
Guest
Nick

Okay, this idea is sorta appealing. But, has anyone considered a waterslide crossing the Columbia River?

meepymoopy
Guest
meepymoopy

I love a good ferry. There were naysayers for the Aerial Tram too, but now we can’t imagine being without it. Bring it on! Of course we should also have BRT, and extend rail to Vancouver, etc. but those are completely different government channels with different sources of funding, and we should allow multiple modes to flourish. Working on one project does not necessarily take away from another.

Eddie
Guest
Eddie

Awesome. I don’t get why there are haters at all…you see little river ferries in Europe all the time