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


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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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.”