Willamette River ferry service takes big step forward

Posted by on June 9th, 2021 at 9:30 am

Bikes on board in a rendering of a Frog Ferry vessel.

“We are all ready for a new and better Portland.”
— Susan Bladholm, Frog Ferry

At a press conference on Tuesday, the nonprofit Friends of Frog Ferry detailed plans for a pilot project that will launch next summer. Once the vessel hits the water, about 70 people at a time will be able to ride from Cathedral Park to RiverPlace in 25 minutes — about half the time the 9.5 mile distance would take to travel by bicycle and just a few minutes slower than driving (without traffic).

We’ve tracked this ambitious attempt to establish a Willamette River commuter ferry since it first gained steam in 2018. Positive results from a feasibility report released by Friends of Frog Ferry last fall gave the group momentum to seek funding and key partnerships for the pilot project.

One of those partnerships is with the City of Portland. At Tuesday’s press conference a name familiar with local transportation innovation, former PBOT Commissioner and Mayor Sam Adams, voiced Portland’s official support for the project. As director of strategic innovations for Mayor Ted Wheeler, Adams said the City of Portland will sponsor Friends of Frog Ferry’s $3.3 million federal grant application.

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It would be a new way to “ride” from north Portland to downtown.

With Portland and the State of Oregon on their side (ODOT has awarded $500,000 toward the pilot project) and with necessary planning processes in the rear-view mirror, the pilot project is all queued up for federal funding. Once the expected funds come through, Friends of Frog Ferry says they’ll run one, 70-passenger vessel 14 hours a day Monday through Friday from St. Johns to RiverPlace. Saturday service is also on the table. According to the group’s estimates, 1,000 people will use the ferry per day and 600 of them would have previously driven cars for the same trips.

As you can see in the images, bikes will be allowed on the ferry. Tickets will cost $3 each way ($2 for honored citizens). The vessel that will be used in the pilot project will run on R99, a renewable diesel fuel. Ultimately the system is expected to use an all-electric fleet.

“A passenger ferry service will help address equitable transit for all Portlanders and better connect residents with the outdoors and our river system,” said Friends of Frog Ferry Founder Susan Bladholm in a statement. “We are all ready for a new and better Portland, one that prioritizes social and climate equity and the future for our city. Frog Ferry is part of that vision, and we are confident in our city and downtown as the pandemic eases and residents begin returning downtown.”

The pilot project is planned to run for two years (2022 – 2024) at a cost of $9.4 million. After 2024, the plan is to add more vessels and stops. Capital costs to stand up the full system are estimated to be $40 million and the service would cost about $7 million per year to operate.

FrogFerry.com

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Ed
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Ed

Not sure how this investment is an improvement over, say, improving bus service between St. Johns and downtown, but new shiny things FTW.

Social Engineer
Guest
Social Engineer

Yep, think how frequent or how much more off-peak service could be added on Lines 16 and 44 for this amount of money. This only really benefits you if you live within walking distance of Cathedral Park (and the vast majority of people in St Johns don’t). So that’s at least one additional transfer.

If you don’t work within walking distance of the river, then add another transfer as well.

Emily CC
Guest
Emily CC

The 44 takes almost an hour to get downtown from St. Johns during rush hour and you’re sitting in traffic (and creating it!) the whole time. Additionally there is only room for 2 bikes on each bus. The 16 only stops near Cathedral Park. As a resident of St John’s I can tell you that I would much rather transfer to Cathedral Park (or bike there) in order to ride a boat down our beautiful river than do the same to ride a bus down 30.

Roberta
Guest

This explanation by Emily above is why I support this endeavor now. The people who live in St. Johns can see the usefulness and how it will improve their commute. That’s enough for me.

And no we don’t have to have the numbers “add up” all the time. We know St. John’s has been underinvested in for a long time. The time savings and enjoyability of the route counts for a lot, for people use to battling Vancouver peak commuters everyday. This will be an improvement.

The planners in this big project have shifted their ferry ports significantly to address real traffic bottlenecks and providing a real alternative shift. This is what good community planning looks like. Thank you Frog Ferry for changing your ferry ports. They may get one down to Lake Oswego, but not until there is enough ridership to merit the expansion. Equity first. Prove it first in areas that have been historically underserved. St.Johns and Riverplace have enough density to support that level of ridership for a test run.

IDK if anybody else was watching the Willamette Lockes authority has been treating their Indigenous partners pretty badly. They walked out and now its going no where. So there’s that…..

Roberta
Guest

I have rethought about Riverplace. I think that station be moved and should have priority over the Teddy Bear Tourist Cruise next to Salmon Street. VERY VERY important to have downtown walkability from the ferry station. Riverplace is outside of the walk catchment. Details matter. Also Stations are the most expensive. If we pay for the stations to get installed, then any new connecting service (ie: a high priced fancy private speed shuttle from Lake Oswego), should be forced to pay additional docking and transfer fees.

Falkor
Guest
Falkor

There has been some talk about running a timed-transfer shuttle loop service from Lombard St in St Johns down to Cathedral Park and back again. A Frog Ferry shuttle, not TriMet. Not sure what the status of that is, but it seems pretty important. Would also be good to have Biketown expand to that area.

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

At a SJNA meeting a couple months ago, the FF rep indicated they see the need and would like to see such a shuttle, but they have no interest in standing it up or operating it themselves. I think in their mind SJ would somehow do it (e.g. the business association) but I see little chance of that happening. So there won’t be one.

curly
Subscriber
curly

“A passenger ferry service will help address equitable transit for all Portlanders and better connect residents with the outdoors and our river system,”

I’m all about the concept, but I’ll probably not use the system so it’s not for all Portlanders. It will be a fun weekend excursion, but not worth the investment. Better to see something like this from the ‘Couve to downtown Portland and give the Washington riders a break from the tolling if they utilize the service.

Emily CC
Guest
Emily CC

The eventual goal of the ferry will include service from Vancouver to downtown Portland. This stage is just the proof of concept. It will also include service from Oregon City.

bryan medley
Guest
bryan medley

I really must be missing how this is going to be a viable venture. I am super stoked on the prospect of riding this ferry, but I just don’t see how this pencils out. With each trip taking 25 minutes, it would be generous to do two trips each hour. With 14 hours of service, we’ll call it 28 trips. At nearly full capacity for 252 days per year (no weekends as yet), over 2 years, we’re looking at around $2.6 million in revenue against a $9.4 million operating budget. Please someone tell me how this makes sense – I’d love to see this work!

GR
Guest
GR

If we’re viewing this as a transit service and not a business, then the revenue shouldn’t matter.

bryan medley
Guest
bryan medley

I do want to view it as a transit service, but I think revenue does matter when it’s funding less than 33% of the operating budget.

John Boren
Guest
John Boren

Unfortunately the reality is that most transit services have a farebox recovery rate that is that low.

John Boren
Guest
John Boren

Most farebox recoveries of transit service are only around 25-30% in car dependent places. i.e. most of the US. This is in line with that. So your point is taken on the frequency being a problem, and I would push for this to be more frequent than every half hour.

Falkor
Guest
Falkor

That’s how transit service works. Fares never cover the full cost, the rest is subsidized through taxation. TriMet fare is $2.50 but it only covers like 30% of the cost. Some even argue that transit should be free at point of sale and fully subsidized, like schools or libraries! Imagine that!

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

I wonder if they could run a weekend extension to Swan Island for the recreational riding opportunities.

nic.cota
Guest
nic.cota

Im guessing you mean Sauvie, but yes I agree!

FunFella13
Guest
FunFella13

Will you be able to pay with a hop card? With a name like Frog Ferry, I sure hope so.

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

not integrating into the existing system seems like a huge fail. Great comment!

Jason McHuff
Guest

It’s bad that you can’t use Hop on the tram (when it’s taking the general public). Not being ticket-based means that services with different price points are not a problem.

soren
Guest
soren

I think the rapid and firm support of this project by city and state has more to do with tourism than actual transportation utility.

PS: Given the minuscule quantities of R99 “biodiesel” available, the main effect of using R99 is to cause someone else to burn more fossil juice (e.g. rearranging deck chairs on our sinking ship).

drs
Guest
drs

Yes. But at least they plan on switching to electric motors when/if they scale up (which might just displace current electricity consumers from renewable sources to fossil fuels, but it could also spur more growth in renewable generation).

VS
Guest
VS

I read the article to say that the biodiesel is in the test phase and that they intend to operate as an electric fleet. A ferry may prove easier to electrify than the comparable bus route.

billt47
Guest
billt47

That logic would apply to anyone using R99. So then … what?

Rob Nob
Guest
Rob Nob

It’s funny when people compare times to bike places. There are plenty of people who can bike from Cathedral Park to River Place in 25 minutes, myself included. So to say it’s half the time it is to bike really depends on the individual. There would be such wide variation.

drs
Guest
drs

25 minutes? You’d have to average over 20 MPH over the entire route without any stops. It’s doable, but that’s in the 90th percentile range for recreational, non-competitive racing cyclists (based on my purely anecdotal knowledge of the kind of shape that I was in when I could consistently average 20 MPH over any kind of distance).

And if you’re achieving those speeds over that distance during peak commute times while biking through parts of the Central City, you’re almost certainly blowing through some red lights, making some aggressive passes, and breaking traffic laws along the way. Or at least, that’s what you would have been doing to achieve those speeds in normal workday bike and motor vehicle traffic pre-covid.

Now, doing that time on an ebike, with top speeds well into the 20s or even 30s, no problem. But that speed is borderline elite for a typical cyclist on a typical commuter bike.

Maddy
Subscriber
Maddy

I used to make it in 35 or so. There isn’t a ton of stop and go. Williamette is a good uninterrupted stretch, then through Overlook and drop onto Greeley (fast downhill) to the Broadway Bridge. The bridge also dumps you into a downhill.

Getting home was slower, because I only rode up Interstate if I got off early enough to make last call at the Nite Hawk:)

Falkor
Guest
Falkor

That’s incredibly fast and atypical. I live in Overlook and it takes me exactly 25 minutes to get to the middle of downtown, and I’m a pretty fast rider.

rob nob
Guest
rob nob

Yes there is a lot of variation. My point EXACTLY; saying it is half the time is odd when there is so much range. Yes some people are fitter than others, but few would take 50 minutes. Anyways, there are virtually no stops going over the bridge and coming in via 30 to Naito and that route is just 8.5 miles.

 
Guest
 

This is actively going to harm active transportation, and recreation on the waterfront, in Portland by making the Steel Bridge lower deck (a vital link in the active transportation network) raise a ridiculous number of times per day. Cancel this boondoggle and redirect the money toward better bus service, or better yet an actual BRT line from St. John’s to downtown.

drs
Guest
drs

Aren’t they designing the ferry to fit under the lower deck at normal water levels?

I agree that BRT would be a better idea than a ferry. But you would have to increase the startup cost 10,000% to build a 9 mile BRT line from St Johns to downtown.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

You wouldn’t need a downtown BRT line. We already have the yellow line, which is inaccessible from St. Johns. The distance between downtown St. Johns and the N Lombard TC is only 3.7 miles and makes huge amounts of sense because it would connect St. Johns (21,000 people), University Park, and Portsmouth to the MAX system. TriMet would never go for it because they only like building high-cost fixed rail systems through low density neighborhoods.

drs
Guest
drs

For that, you wouldn’t even need to do BRT . Just an enhanced, regular bus line, like they are doing on Division (with a regular bus, not an articulated bus). Just one bus that shoots down Lombard from the center of St Johns to the Lombard TC and then loop back around, with a handful of stops along the way. Well more than one bus. You’d probably want three or four making the loop to keep the service frequent.

But the 16 would still be a much better option on the way into downtown from St Johns if they would increase the frequency. It takes a little longer to get downtown from St Johns than the yellow line does from the Lombard TC. But if you add in a bus connection from St Johns to get to the Lombard TC, it would still probably take longer on the yellow line, unless there was a train blocking Naito at the Steel Bridge, which there often is.

On the way back from downtown, with the daily massive backups on Bridge Ave, it would probably be a crapshoot as to which option would be faster, a frequent service 16 bus or a yellow line trip with a fast, frequent bus connection.

Falkor
Guest
Falkor

They’re using a very short boat that will not require Steel Bridge lifts.

 
Guest
 

Ok good. I still don’t support the project. The reason the ferries are successful and make sense in Seattle is that it’s a long way to the other side of the Sound by driving, transiting, riding, or walking; the ferry cuts off a significant distance and is much less expensive than a new bridge across the sound. Same with the ferries farther south in the Willamette Valley used to cross the river. That is emphatically not true here, where one can in almost the same distance that a ferry would take get to their destinations using roads or paths.

qqq
Guest
qqq

Yes, and that’s only in the cases of the several destinations that are connected by roads. Many Washington State Ferry routes connect to islands you can’t get to except by boat or plane.

I swam once from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, but wouldn’t recommend that for commuting.

Chris M
Guest
Chris M

The biggest problem with ferries is that usually there is very little in terms of destinations within walking distance of ferry terminals. this is partially because half of the area in walking distance is almost always water, and also because most cities are built most densely around a road or railroad intersection, not near the water.

For an example of this it’s pretty easy to just look at Cathedral park– the Cathedral Park ferry stop would be in easy walking distance of only a handful of homes and businesses, and it’s at the bottom of a pretty big hill. Even if the ride on the ferry were a lot faster than taking the bus or biking, there are not many trips where it would be the best option.

Falkor
Guest
Falkor

Hundreds of units have been built in Cathedral Park in recent years, and there are hundreds of affordable housing units coming to the area in the near future. It’s a very fast-growing area.

MarkinNoPo
Guest
MarkinNoPo

30,000 people live in St. Johns, fewer than live in Redmond, Bend’s small sibling. And even fewer live within a short walk of the Cathedral Park water front and work near RiverPlace. This ship is gonna sink.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

St. Johns is a huge neighborhood and Cathedral Park is on the very extreme west edge of it. I can’t see this succeeding as the neighborhood currently stands, but I can see the Frog Ferry boosting land value near the park, which would be good a thing because the area around Cathedral Park is terribly under-developed. I can imagine new apartments going up advertising the ~20 minute boat ride to downtown.

The times they chose for arrivals and departures are really odd. They are obviously targeting 8-5 workers, but for some reason the ferry leaves on the hour, so if you get off work at 4, you have to wait until the five o clock ferry and if you get off work at 5, you have to wait until the six o clock ferry. It also seems expensive. $120 a month if you work 20 days a month. How much does a monthly parking pass cost down there?

I’m also curious how they are going to deal with parking. Most of the ferry riders will be driving to catch the ferry and the neighborhood is not going to be super happy about it.

The equity angle is also suspect to me. I can’t imagine this route being really viable for anyone outside of office workers/ 8-5 workers.

jered l bogli
Guest
jered l bogli

OMG – I’ve joked about wanting to start a ferry service just like this for years. A colder version of the Bangkok water taxis, but so good for those couple months in the summer.

cw
Guest
cw

Complete waste of money. Why don’t they allocate those funds to take on a bigger issue, like traffic congestion? The fact that the interstate bridge is a complete disaster. Homeless issues could utilize these funds as well.
As hard as you try people are not going to give up their vehicles and start riding bikes. So, maybe use our heads and fix problems that are far more detrimental to the city.

SMH at the ignorance. We have a majority of our bridges in the danger zone for ratings, yet we spend money and build a new walking, biking bridge? No wonder they have news stories called “Is Portland over?”

Douglas Kelso
Guest
Douglas Kelso

I don’t get how this works. It provides express service from Cathedral Park to Riverplace dock. From there you can walk three blocks to catch one of the streetcars, for a slow, circuitous ride to destinations downtown. There are no practical transit connections at the north end that don’t involve walking half a mile up a steep hill. It’s “a few minutes slower than driving” without traffic as long as you don’t count walking time at each end. It’s probably faster than a local bus (assuming you want to make that specific trip), but slower than a non-stop express bus from N. Lombard & Burlington to the OHSU Schnitzer campus.

Why would anyone use this service, beyond a novelty ride? It seems to serve no useful transit purpose.

Suburban
Guest
Suburban

This hydro-monorail is absolutely the wave of the future. The village of St. Johns needs all the street car connectivity it can get in the next hundred years. I like the idea of a Swan Island and Sauvies Island docks. Oregon City is River City! The area in the rendering where the Bicycles are shown will actually be where smokers hang out, exhale, and flick butts into the water.What!? It’s just bio-degradable paper,don’t tread on their freedoms, man.

qqq
Guest
qqq

“…people…will be able to ride from Cathedral Park to RiverPlace in 25 minutes — about half the time the 9.5 mile distance would take to travel by bicycle and just a few minutes slower than driving (without traffic).”

This is a faulty, misleading way to look at trip times. Sure, if the timer starts ticking when the boat leaves the dock and stops when it gets to the destination dock, it’s 25 minutes. But you have to add several minutes waiting to start, plus whatever time it takes to get to the ferry, plus time from leaving the ferry to walk or ride to your destination. The typical door-to-door time may be closer to an hour or so.

Biking the whole way, there’s no wait time. For many people, buses will pick you up closer to your home and drop you off much closer to your downtown destination than RiverPlace. Driving, there’s no wait at the start of your trip, and you’re likely to be able to park much closer to your destination than RiverPlace.

Each person’s door-to-door times will be different of course. My guess is the ferry, for most people, is not going to look nearly as good compared to other modes when timed door-to-door rather than dock-to-dock.

Stefanovich
Guest
Stefanovich

To everyone nitpicking about how it’s not perfect and there are flaws, keep in mind one proverb. “Perfect is the enemy of good.” If you don’t start somewhere, you won’t get anywhere. Build it and they will come. Buses are often stuck in traffic for hours, so until PBOT gets around to making more bus-only lanes, this is your best bet for rush hour traffic. To those complaining that nowhere important is near the waterfront, the same can be said for some MAX stops; those stops are still used by hundreds and hundreds of people a day.

Maddy
Subscriber
Maddy

I lived in St. John’s for many years, and bike commuted to Downtown and then bike/bused to Tualatin.

I’m pretty sure logistics would mean I would have never used this ferry to get to work. I’m not sure this will really benefit the residents of St. John’s, but it may be a cool way to boost tourism to the area. At least during the summer.

LASM
Guest
LASM

Totally love this. There are many reasonable concerns in this thread about the efficacy of this compared to other transportation options, but I think that just as a way for Portlanders to connect with our river at a very low cost (a few dollars, compared to owning or renting a boat) is well worth the effort.