Will ‘Frog Ferry’ leap forward or croak? Founder turns up heat at City Hall press conference

Posted by on April 20th, 2022 at 3:45 pm

Group of people inside standing behind someone at a lectern in front of an old city building.

Susan Blandholm speaks at Wednesday’s press conference in front of Portland City Hall.
(Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

It’s now or never for the Friends of Frog Ferry (FOFF), the nonprofit organization pushing for a passenger ferry system that would serve Vancouver and Portland on the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

After several years of momentum, FOFF are making a last ditch appeal to City Hall and TriMet to provide funding for their project, even calling on the federal government to allocate funds from the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act.

At a press conference outside Portland City Hall this morning, FOFF president and founder Susan Bladholm asked Portland City Council to rethink their recent no vote on funding further work on this project. She specifically focused on Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and spoke out strongly against city funding decisions at a Council meeting last week.

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Person with red hair speaking into a microphone

Blandholm

At last week’s meeting, Hardesty took issue with Commissioner Mingus Mapps’ movement to set aside $225,000 for FOFF research and operational funding in the FY 2021-22 spring supplemental budget.

It’s not the ferry system itself Hardesty said she has a problem with. She has expressed interest in this idea before, and acknowledges its potential feasibility. (We covered the 2020 Frog Ferry Feasibility Report, which digs more into what this system would do for the Portland area.)

But right now, Hardesty said, there’s too much baggage associated with the project for her to support allocating more money for it.

One of the concerns Hardesty has is how FOFF has been using government funds over the last several years. This is an issue brought to city employees’ attention by TriMet staff at the beginning of this month.

Hardesty read an email sent from TriMet staff to city employees on April 7 that accuses FOFF of seeking reimbursements that “don’t add up and keep changing.” TriMet staff also accused Bladholm of taking shady measures to increase her salary at the nonprofit.

“This is a serious concern because it involves using private foundation monies in ways that do not conform to accounting standards,” Hardesty said.

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TriMet is designated by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to distribute funds from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund (STIF) to transit projects in the Portland metro area. From Bladholm’s perspective, TriMet is failing to allocate FOFF’s $500,000 share of the STIF, and they haven’t heard back from TriMet staff about what the problem is. She denies allegations of any kind of fraud, and says her organization is an open book for Council to investigate.

“We welcome an audit for Frog Ferry,” Bladholm said at this morning’s press conference.

These financial issues aren’t the only problem Hardesty has with the project. She also said with all the other transportation projects happening in the city, this is not something PBOT can undertake right now, and despite other organizational involvement, the transportation bureau would have to be involved in a project like this. However, she doesn’t feel PBOT has been adequately communicated with in regard to the project.

“Nobody has had any conversations with me about moving forward a new transportation project based on all the transportation projects I currently have on my plate,” Hardesty said. “I realize you’re interested in seeing PBOT tackle transport transformative transportation projects. The challenge is that the Bureau is already tackling numerous transformative transportation projects.”

To Bladholm, Hardesty’s concerns about PBOT bandwidth are an attempt to exert power over FOFF and the rest of Council.

“Don’t withhold funds due to allegations and political posturing.”
— Susan Blandholm, Frog Ferry

“I cannot support staff or monetary allocation to a project facing these challenges and accusations.”
— Jo Ann Hardesty, commissioner

“Commissioner Hardesty’s comments are about power and who is in charge,” Bladholm said. She pointed out that Frog Ferry will need to work with multiple city bureaus outside PBOT, interfacing with other commissioners. This includes Mapps, who runs the Bureau of Environmental Services and Travel Portland.

From Hardesty’s perspective, however, there just aren’t enough stakeholders willing to engage, and she thinks a lack of multi-jurisdictional support for this project makes it unreasonable for the city to wade in at this time.

“A lot of people at the city want to see an exciting new transit option provided. I am one of those people. But as it stands now, I cannot support staff or monetary allocation to a project facing these challenges and accusations,” Hardesty said. “At the very least, I think it would be the responsible for this city council to wait until the TriMet and Frog Ferry conflict is resolved to any level of clarity that ensures we do not take a vote we could end up regretting.”

In the end, the project has been shelved until Frog Ferry can show Council they’re viable enough to continue. But with federal funding on the line, Bladholm wants to see more immediate support.

“We ask that you bring this back to City Council immediately for another request for an ordinance to make Frog Ferry a true partner for our federal grant application. Time is short. Help us get all city bureaus to work together to fund us with $225,000 to keep us afloat, and don’t withhold funds due to allegations and political posturing,” Bladholm said at the press conference. “This is really about love for community. That is why we’re doing this.”

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cc_rider
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cc_rider

I don’t think the Frog Ferry is feasible, but I do take issue with Hardesty saying that PBOT is engaged in so many “transformational” projects. St. Johns certainly isn’t benefitting from any of these projects. The fact that it would be faster to travel to a dock, get on a ferry and ride to downtown than take a bus speaks volumes.

What will ultimately doom Frog Ferry is that greenlighting the project wont get the political points that building in East County does, and wont get the donations that building in NW and the central city does. The city doesn’t care about the peninsula. St. Johns should just leave and be its own city, they’d get better services

Josh Chernoff
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Josh Chernoff

As a conservationist I don’t like the idea of more oil powered vehicles in our waterways. It also seems like it does little to address the real issues of congestion and is just a money grab by empowering corporations and not people.

We need infrastructure for people not corporations. My 2¢

Gary B
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Gary B

I’ve been a FF skeptic from the beginning, but for clarity I’ll note that their plans are for battery-electric ferries after the initial diesel-powered pilot.

TJ
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TJ

Frog Ferry does not have plans for electric ferries. What they have is an idea: electric ferries would be better than diesel, so let’s market with that. Plans would be an electric ferry procurement strategy, plans for pier/dock to support electric ferry charging, shoreline/land agreements. The several years old implementation cost estimates for diesel ferries was $40M. Frog Ferry, to my knowledge, has not updated the implementation cost for electric operations or inflation, despite pushing the plan out by years.

J_R
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J_R

End this fiasco already. The proposed ferry will carry too few people, cost too much, and will be unreliable due to current and weather.
I’m a sailor and a canoeist and enjoy time on the water as much as anyone, but for transportation the Frog Ferry simply doesn’t work. There are lots of places to get more for the money.

dwk
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dwk

I would not call this whole thing a scam but… if someone like Joann Hardesty questions your transparency, you might have a problem.

Accountant
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Accountant

I thought Hardesty was the one accused of some monetary problems recently, no?

Douglas Kelso
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Douglas Kelso

I don’t see what benefits the Frog Ferry would provide in terms of transit. The Frog Ferry web site suggests a 25 minute trip from Cathedral Park to River Place, but there will be boarding time and walking time at both ends, so it’s actually longer. Meanwhile, TriMet bus 16 will get you from the heart of St Johns to downtown Portlsnd in about 25 minutes, while serving a lot of other stops along the way. Also, bus 44 runs on the east side, and it takes longer; about 40 minutes to get downtown by a more circuitous route. But it serves the heart of downtown and has scads of transfer options, so it’s probably a wash in terms of time.

What does Frog Ferry provide that we couldn’t get by just increasing service frequency on the #16, or creating a 44-limited? The river route just seems like a slow express ride downtown from a place that won’t generate very many trips.

Chris I
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Chris I

Ferries only make sense when adjacent road/rail options are not available. That condition doesn’t exist in any of the populated areas in or near Portland. The operating cost per passenger would be outrageous, and would only beat transit on very specific, low-ridership segments.

I can’t decide if she is horribly misguided, or just trying to milk this thing for all it is worth. The outrageous compensation for a non-existent service seems to indicate the latter.

Leif
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Leif

I have taken the West Seattle Water Taxi – that just connects you from downtown Seattle to the West Seattle peninsula. There’s already perfect serviceable land routes – I mostly just take it for the novelty – but it is a bit shorter than the land route. It’s not generally possible for a river route to be shorter than a land route in that way, though, because a river is just a line (West Seattle and downtown Seattle are separated by the geography of the sound). I think a ferry for a river only makes sense in the absence of a bridge (or there’s some rough terrain around there that makes building a road / rail infeasible).

Rhillier
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Rhillier

Increasing transit service in this travel corridor makes so much more sense. I recall when Susan presented the Frog Ferry concept to the Portland Freight Committee several years ago with the main pitch that it would reduce SOV traffic on the Interstate Bridge and free up freight capacity. Her presentation was mostly project marketing and self promotion with little in the way of actual technical transportation analysis. When pushed on the actual operating capacity of vehicles on the ferry it amounted to less then one half of one percent of ADT on the Interstate Bridge.

Thomas Montelongo
Guest
Thomas Montelongo

This is a grift. Full stop. Was never feasible and I was shocked that they scammed their way into any money at all.

plm
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plm

I would love to see this work. Unfortunately it seems to be more of a Shelbyville idea

zuckerdog
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zuckerdog

and Seattle has a monorail

Laura
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Laura

All it would take is one grain ship turning in area above Steel Bridge to screw the schedule. That, and current, and debris. The feasibility study costs bore no resemblance to similar studies on comparable situations.. It was a dreamland fantasy from day 1.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

This Frog Ferry group doesn’t sound great. But how does their accountability and use of funds stack up against ODOT?

Roberta Robles
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Roberta Robles

Lets not forget that the Frog Ferry also “cooked” the books on fares and ridership in their earlier reports. The latest Ferry stop location, too far away from the city center, will not get the ridership numbers they are projecting due to the distance from city center.

I’m really not surprised TriMet has found similar discrepancies in funding and outsized consulting fees. These frog people have been cooking the books every time they think they can get away with it.

LOLZ

Blaine
Guest
Blaine

Im in favor of the FF pilot program. Alas, the geniuses at bike portlands comment section can see right through the apparent BS and have unanimously condemned the idea. What a bummer…