Portland’s public transportation system includes TriMet bus and light rail systems, the streetcar, electric bike and scooter share programs, and— for those with business at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU)— an aerial tram. To some Portlanders, there’s a big, boat-sized hole missing from the list. Enter Frog Ferry: a concept for a passenger ferry system serving Portland and Vancouver commuters via the Columbia and Willamette rivers. 

But considering Portland's current transportation budget crisis, are city leaders willing to take the, ahem, leap and endorse the Frog Ferry as a new mode of travel?

A rendering of a Frog Ferry vessel. (Friends of Frog Ferry)


Several Frog Ferry boosters testified at an October 4 Portland City Council meeting, asking commissioners to support the project. With a budget deficit to contend with, Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Commissioner Mingus Mapps signaled the Frog Ferry may be a sinking ship. 

"I'm busy trying to figure out how to cut $32 million from PBOT's budget," Mapps said at the meeting. "Creating a new mode of transportation, even one which I think would be a great benefit to our community, is awfully difficult." 

Still, supporters of the project don't want to throw in the towel. 

“Frog Ferry” refers to both the concept for a passenger ferry service in the Portland area and the nonprofit Friends of Frog Ferry, founded in 2017 to promote the idea. Frog Ferry president Susan Bladholm, a longtime local transportation industry insider, started the nonprofit because she thinks Portland’s waterways are underutilized as a travel resource. Bladholm says a ferry service would help the city reach its climate goals, reduce traffic congestion on Portland's streets and highways, and could even serve as emergency transportation in the case of an earthquake.  A large team of Frog Ferry volunteers agree with her, and together they have been trying to put a ferry on the water for the better part of a decade. 

The Frog Ferry's proposed route. (Frog Ferry)

Eventually, project leaders envision the ferry would use both the Columbia and Willamette rivers to shuttle passengers around the metro area, with multiple stops between Vancouver and Oregon City. But first, they'd want to run a pilot program from the St. Johns neighborhood to the South Waterfront, mainly to serve OHSU employees who live in North Portland. At 22 knots service speed, Frog Ferry advertises it would take about 25 minutes to travel from the dock at Cathedral Park to the RiverPlace Marina—much faster than any current public transit option, plus there's no rush-hour traffic on the Willamette River. 

The last few years have had their ups and downs for Frog Ferry supporters, but project leaders thought they turned a corner when President Biden passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021. The IIJA set aside more than $2 billion for ferry programs across the country, and assuming they could find a local government partner to cosign the grant application, Frog Ferry supporters thought they could get a piece of the pie. 

Bladholm said all the Frog Ferry needs is a spot on Oregon Metro's 2023 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), which will determine major transportation projects in the Portland area for the next five years. If the project is included in the RTP, it can qualify for federal ferry grants and seek matching funds through the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF). The big point Frog Ferry supporters want to make: it doesn't need any money from Portland's flailing transportation bureau to stay afloat. But the window of opportunity is small: Metro Council will take a final vote on the RTP in November, with or without the ferry's inclusion on the list. 

Since he took over the role of overseeing PBOT at the beginning of the year, Mapps has indicated support for the Frog Ferry. But at the October 4 City Council meeting, he announced that while he still likes the project, he needed to "speak some truths."

Mapps said even if PBOT wouldn't need to contribute financially to the project, inclusion on the RTP would take away federal funding opportunities for other projects. 

"Because I respect you and I want to honor your activism, I feel obliged to actually be straight with you about what our current position is," Mapps said. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler, however, appeared to leave some room for hope to ferry supporters. He said as long as the city doesn't have to commit to financially backing the project, Council members will "talk amongst themselves" over the next several weeks about getting it on the RTP. 

In a conversation with the Mercury after the meeting, Bladholm said she was confused about the message Council is trying to send. She said putting the Frog Ferry on the RTP wouldn't take away from other projects and would only allow Portland to tap into federal funds specifically designated for ferries. IIJA funding will run out in 2026.

"We're not asking for any city funding," Bladholm said. "This is such an easy win...[the federal dollars] are on a silver platter."

Without public funding, the only option is for the ferry to go private. Among other impacts, this would mean much higher ticket prices—currently Frog Ferry estimates one-way tickets would cost about $5—and Bladholm isn't on board with that.

"We've always wanted this to be affordable and accessible for everyone. So we're not going to change our business," Bladholm said. 

If the Frog Ferry fails, Bladholm said it can be chalked up to a lack of political will. 

"It's just one thing after another. We have to have a true champion at City Hall," she said. "I'm mostly just motivated by the concerns over climate. It's so disappointing and just terrifying that something this easy gets [pulled down] by petty politics."