With missed grant deadline and no political support, Frog Ferry takes on more water

(Source: Frog Ferry)

“Portland used to be a mecca for transportation innovation.”

– Nina Byrd, Friends of Frog Ferry

It was just last summer when supporters of the non-profit initiative Friends of Frog Ferry (FOFF) announced their pilot program for a ferry to whisk passengers up and down the Willamette River was set for imminent launch. But a lot can change in a year. On Tuesday officials behind the project announced the dream of a Willamette River ferry system is no longer alive in Portland – at least for the time being.

FOFF members, who have been advocating for this new transportation mode since 2018, needed a public agency – either TriMet or the City of Portland – to partner with them in order to apply for a Federal Transit Administration grant to develop the ferry pilot. That deadline came and went on Tuesday and Frog Ferry struck out.

The non-profit has received financial support from the City of Portland and State of Oregon the past; but local political will for the ferry project has fallen flat, and Frog Ferry leaders say they now have no choice but to put the program on an indefinite pause.

 “We are able to a put a boat on the water within 18 months. We will not be able to do so until our City Leaders also make it a priority,” reads an email sent to supporters yesterday.

Group of people inside standing behind someone at a lectern in front of an old city building.
FOFF founder Susan Bladholm speaks in front of City Hall at an April press conference. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

To FOFF supporters, this saga indicates the City of Portland is failing to innovate like it used to.

“Portland used to be a mecca for transportation innovation. If that’s a title that we were proud of, we’ll have to continue to evolve,” FOFF board member Nina Byrd told BikePortland on a phone call this morning. “[That evolution] requires robust transportation infrastructure, which includes a ferry system. It’s really not rocket science.”

But ferry-skeptical City of Portland leaders say they don’t have the bandwidth to take a project like this on right now. When Portland City Council discussed the ferry pilot back in April, Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty appeared particularly wary of allocating resources to FOFF.

“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,” Hardesty said at the time.

Byrd said PBOT can do multiple things at once, and given that FOFF doesn’t need city money right now, all they’d have to do is help sign off on the federal grant application.

(Source: Frog Ferry)

“This project has been seen as just an additional burden on behalf of our Bureau. I really do think it’s just a lack of sophistication in terms of bandwidth capacity,” Byrd said. “I get that, but it’s not an excuse to not innovate and to continue to grow our transportation system.”

However, Hardesty was also put off by a financial dispute between FOFF and TriMet, who was in charge of doling out the $500,000 in state funds to the ferry program. In April, TriMet officials wrote to city staff to express concerns that FOFF’s founder Susan Bladholm was asking the transit agency for questionable reimbursements. Bladholm has denied these allegations. To FOFF, TriMet is making up baseless accusations in order to withhold a chunk of the money allocated to the project.

“The level of scrutiny this project is under seems to be mired in political realities and personal opinion on behalf of our government leaders,” Byrd said. “[Accusations of financial impropriety] are nothing but absurdity.”

It’s not just the public agencies who are skeptical of the ferry proposal. Joe Cortright took his disagreements with Frog Ferry to City Observatory in April, writing that the ferry’s claims of expediency and practicality are outlandish.

“It’s not possible for a regular ferry service to travel faster between Vancouver and Portland than a car, or even today’s bus service. In the real world, boats are slower than both cars and buses,” Cortright wrote. “Water transportation, especially given the circuitous water route between Vancouver and Portland, the slow speeds of even “fast” ferries, the need to minimize damaging wakes at higher speeds, and the relative remoteness of docks from actual destinations, means that ferries in Portland are an unwise, uneconomic folly.”

But the FOFF concept will likely persist. Byrd told BikePortland the ferry is popular and inevitable in Portland, and even though the project is currently a sinking ship, they’re still asking for support.

“We believe that by and large, the majority of Portlanders are for the project. We believe there’s a pathway forward, but the public agencies have to step up and sponsor it,” she said. “We will have a ferry system one day. To say otherwise is like saying we’re not going to build another bridge or bike loop.”

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21 days ago

This is good; this “concept” was never anything more than an attempted money grab. Ferries make sense in places like Seattle where the ferry route across the water is significantly shorter and faster than the circuitous route on land. That’s not at all the case here in Portland, and nobody’s going to take a ferry when they could get there significantly quicker by using alternate modes of transportation like C-Tran’s express service or the MAX Yellow Line. A much better use of funds would be to create a true commuter rail system instead from Vancouver to either Sherwood, Tualatin, or Oregon City that would accomplish the same goal with much quicker speeds and more location flexibility.

Tomas Paella
Tomas Paella
21 days ago
Reply to   

They tried to bill TriMet for $70,000 of pro-bono (donated) work, which they only admitted to after whistleblowers took note. Shady!

Robert Wallis
Robert Wallis
20 days ago
Reply to   

I agree that the concept was flawed. Not so sure that this was a money grab. Lots of well intentioned mistakes out there (defund police). A lot of transportation decisions are made without regard to economics or logic. Look no further than our auto-focused transportation system, which makes the Frog Ferry look like a genius scheme.

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
20 days ago
Reply to  Robert Wallis

You could make Frog Ferry free and still almost nobody would’ve taken it. Even still, we threw hundreds of thousands of dollars her way.

Brian
Brian
21 days ago

I would be ticked if my tax dollars went towards something like this, instead of other, more needed programs

Nick
Nick
21 days ago

We believe that by and large, the majority of Portlanders are for the project

Hm dubious

Imagine how many bike lanes and other bike infra could be built for half a million

Dave
Dave
20 days ago
Reply to  Nick

$500k?? These days, not much dude!

J_R
J_R
20 days ago
Reply to  Dave

Even one rapid flash beacon would be a better expenditure than the results of this fiasco.

alex
alex
20 days ago

I think a ferry between Vancouver and PDX would be interesting, but the ferry routes they are proposing just seem too redundant with current and future public transit.

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
20 days ago

A moronic idea from the get-go.

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
20 days ago

Who’s the moron? Not her.

We gave her “non-profit” half a million bucks and repeatedly looked past her financial “irregularities.”

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
20 days ago

Could Frog Line operate with low water on Willamette as is happening now and likely to happen from now on?

Jerard C
Jerard C
20 days ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

Not sure if you’ve noticed but the end of summer is always dry and the river is always low. This is not a new phenomenon

Chris I
Chris I
19 days ago
Reply to  Jerard C

Good point! Another reason that a ferry is a terrible idea: it doesn’t work during peak summer tourist season.

Bryan Morris
Bryan Morris
20 days ago

This whole thing was a boondoggle from the beginning. It seemed like a Trumpian scam to con the public out of money.

Alex B.
Alex B.
20 days ago

The Vancouver-Portland commuter ferry concept is cracked, but the concept of more of a “water taxi” with frequent stops on the Willamette in the city center makes sense. Portland essentially has a frequent transit grid from 10th/11th to MLK/Grand with corridors about every quarter mile except for where the river breaks it up. A ferry making alternating stops on each bank between roughly the Pearl or the Lloyd and the South Waterfront could fill that gap while augmenting cross-river travel. It probably could be done cheaply, too, if existing piers could be used. I’m not saying it would work for sure, but it seems worth spending half a million to study. (A half million isn’t too bad as far as transportation studies go; ODOT has spent more than 8x that on studying whether & how to implement the same passenger rail service they’ve been running for 30 years.)

Matt S.
Matt S.
19 days ago

I like the idea of the Frog Ferry as a form of entertainment, not so much as a commuter.