Blog Willamette River Ferry Transit For Portland: Pipe Dream Or Not?

In an Oregonian op-ed titled “The Ready River Of Transit At Our Core,” sustainable developer Peter Wilcox argues for the innate feasibility of an urban water bus system connecting otherwise disparate communities along the landmark Willamette River, a major north-south regional artery. As in the Seattle region, where supporters of an expanded regional passenger-only ferry network met recently to plot next steps, the water in Portland seems a natural piece of transit infrastructure waiting to be more fully developed. Wilcox writes:

What would Portland look like if we made the incredible Willamette River our most visible and sustainable public transportation mode? Talk about disparate parts getting connected. Talk about opportunities for many more carless trips….It has long puzzled me that so many of us are willing to let the river exist mostly as something we observe from afar or as a speedy thoroughfare for powerful big-wake boats…..the Willamette could be so much more to our residents and a much more accessible attracter for visitors as well.
The feasibility study that Portland’s Office of Transportation commissioned a year ago… found that a “central city circulator” — another term for a river-based bus line connecting what are now disparate close-in neighborhoods — is feasible right now. River buses could readily circulate from Oaks Park, Ross Island and South Waterfront to Union Station, the Pearl and Swan Island, crossing the river at key places and times. Later, as more people were able to use the system for travel and commuting, it could stretch to Milwaukie and St. Johns or beyond, spurring transit-friendly development.
…the city (should) set standards for docks, begin including sustainable river transit in political visions and plans, and agree on ways to go after the same available dock and shoreside facility funds that other cities are using. Given at least 10,000 years of river transport in the Northwest — certainly the first public transit in Portland — we deserve a web of transportation that includes green river transit…

It’s certainly true that the City DOT’s 2006 Willamette River Ferry Feasibility Study includes some upbeat views on passenger-only ferries serving Portland.

For years, Portlanders have debated the value of passenger services operating on the Willamette River. Not only could such services offer promise for moving people without claiming expensive new rights-of-way, but they also present an opportunity to reconnect the City with one of its greatest natural assets. Throughout Portland’s history, the Willamette River has been the backbone for industry and commerce; as a result, the City has turned its residential neighborhoods and recreation facilities away from the river.
In recent years Portlanders have begun to recognize the unmistakable value of the Willamette River as an urban amenity. The Vera Katz Esplanade has created new access to the Riverfront east of downtown, rapid development at South Waterfront is transforming a riverside brownfield into an accessible waterfront neighborhood, planned improvements to Tom McCall Waterfront Park will improve the connection between Downtown/Old Town and the Willamette River, furthermore, development in the Pearl District is now reaching the river and will soon transform the waterfront between the Broadway and Fremont bridges. Increased business, residential and visitor activity on the riverfront increases the viability of river-based transportation services.

The study cites additional positives stemming from foot ferries on the Willamette – noting that river-oriented transit would:

  • be concentrated and sustainable;
  • actually boost support for environmental restoration along the river;
  • provide an enhanced experience of the region for visitors and tourists;
  • and provide transportation alternatives as roadway congestion grows.
  • However the study ultimately carries a mixed verdict for Portland-region foot ferry backers. On the upside, it finds that in-city “seasonal circulator” service could well be worth a shot, provided there is a strong push by advocates for both political support and supplemental funding from non-government sources. However, the study also finds that regional year-round commuter service isn’t currently feasible due to high costs for operations and landside infrastructure. Such service could become feasible in the future, the study reports, if some of the following conditions are met:

  • travel times on roadways paralleling the river become slower than that of a foot ferry covering the same points of origin and destination;
  • there are population increases of 10 percent or more in identified foot ferry markets that are 20-plus minutes distant from downtown Portland and lack other high-capacity transit modes;
  • a significant increase occurs in high-density residential and commercial development adjacent to the river in suburban locales;
  • there is a change in cost structures that lower operating costs.
  • From my read of the study, labor costs do not appear to be unreasonable, with each foot ferry requiring a U.S. Coast Guard-certified captain at an annual salary of $50,500 and an unlicensed deckhand at $24,600; with taxes and benefits bringing those combined crew costs per boat to $105,600 a year.
    The real bugaboo is other operating costs including fuel and landside infrastructure, plus weak projected ridership, and what economists call “demand elasticity” – meaning in this case there’s a price discomfort point for transit fares beyond which many potential customers will seek cheaper alternatives.
    There is some point in urban region transportation planning at which the “green eyeshade” accountant’s approach, reliant as it is on projections of future use and costs per rider, clashes with the visionary, or “build it and they will come” approach.
    For passenger-only ferry commuter networks thought to compare poorly on costs to buses or rail, the willingness of private sector players to provide and rationalize funding grows in importance.
    Major employers and business alliances with the most to gain from expanded foot ferry operations would need to be persuaded to get on board. This in turn goes back to employee and customer preferences regarding local and regional travel. Getting to and from the dock at each end has to be convenient and quick, or the premise can’t go much further than a seasonal novelty. Marketing campaigns would need to highlight the “portal to portal” time advantage for specific foot ferry routes versus driving and other transit modes, as well. Softer sell “enjoy the ride – skip the traffic” pitches have value, but can only gain traction if travel time comparisons work.
    Additionally, the more daily commerce that can be situated in proximity to foot ferry transit nodes – grocery stores, dry cleaners, even day care centers and schools – the greater the appeal. Of course, light rail and bus rapid transit centers can also enjoy such advantages; underscoring competition between modes and ultimately, the need for unified regional transportation governance which emphasizes balance between roads and transit, and putting the right transit modes in the right places.
    Here’s one more thing that would help. State legislatures, city governments and regional transportation authorities could help to better facilitate cost-effective foot ferry commuter networks – and corollary high-density residential development – by working together to ensure that transportation infrastructure projects and operations can be bid under the most competitive procedures, including due consideration to proposals from non-union labor, and public-private partnerships.