Rethinking River Transport in Portland

A discussion of possibilities for river transport in Portland, beyond those ideas already studied.

Many of you read the excellent transit blog Human Transit, hosted by Australia-based transit planner (and native Portlander) Jarrett Walker. If you don’t read it, I encourage all of you to check it out–it’s a very well-written blog, written from the perspective of a professional in the field, and one that attracts knowledgeable commenters from all over the world.

This past week, Human Transit has been covering the severe flooding in Australia, in particular the impact in Brisbane. Today’s post, written as the floodwaters start to recede, looks at the damage to the city’s transit system. While the busses and trains are back in service (and the tunnels under the Brisbane River appear to have survived the flood), the city’s extensive ferry system (a series of ferries crossing the river) has been severely damaged. While the boats were moved out to sea prior to the floodwaters arriving and thus are unharmed; the riverside terminals were all destroyed; authorities suspect that it will be weeks or months before the system is back online.

In his post, Jarrett noted many similarities between Brisbane and Portland–both are similar-sized cities bisected by a major waterway. But one difference, which I noted at Jarrett’s blog–is that Portland has utterly no river transport, whereas as riverboats are a key part of urban transit in the capital of Queensland.
The lack of river transport in Portland

Many boats ply the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, which are navigable throughout the region (though many larger craft have issues going south of Ross Island). Yet other than dinner cruises like the Portland Spirit, none of them offer passenger service–and the cruises generally only provide round trips up and down the river. The closest thing to river transit in the region is the Canby Ferry, a low-capacity cable ferry which hauls a cars across the river south of Stafford. There are many historic ferries–Stark Street, Boones, Taylors, Scholls, which once served the region. All of them suffered the same fate: construction of a bridge which made them obsolete. Many of these long-vanished ferries still have streets named after them; but that’s one of the few signs of what once was.

The lack of river transit is not for a lack of trying, however. The City of Portland and Metro have both studied the issue (the former study as part of the River Renaissance project, the latter as part of the South Corridor project), and the operators of the Portland Spirit and several other riverboat cruises have also promoted the issue. Both Metro and the city came up with the same conclusion, however–it’s not cost effective. The city presently considers river transit a low priority compared to other potential improvements.

Why is Brisbane different?

What, then, is the difference? One thing that both cities have in common is a heavy concentration of bridges in the downtown area, and few other crossings besides, either upstream or downstream. Some differences might include geography (the Willamette lies in a narrow gorge between the West Hills on one side, and various other landforms such as the Oatfield Ridge on the other; and on the resulting land-use patterns–much of the uses along the river are either industrial, or high-end residential. The communities along the river outside of downtown (St. Johns, Milwaukie, Lake Oswego, Gladstone, West Linn, and Oregon City) provide surprisingly little access to it–many of the populated areas are located on bluffs at some distance from the shore, rather than right on the river. Concerns about flooding (ironically) may play a part in this–one historic settlement that was built along the river was Linn City, which only lasted for two decades before being destroyed by flood. (The modern city of West Linn lies west of historic Linn City, up the hill and out of the river’s reach). Portland experienced a 100-year flood back in 1996, and while it did a great deal of damage, the severity of the catastrophe was nothing compared to what Brisbane (and many other places in Australia) have faced this week.

Greater Brisbane simply has more people living in proximity to the river.

But there are a few other key differences as well. Look at the following map of Brisbane’s transit system (shamelessly cribbed from Jarrett, who in turn swiped it from the local transit authority–click on the picture to make it bigger).


A few things jump out. There are two lines running “vertically” along the river–a downtown ferry that snakes through the city center, a distance of about 4km (2.5 miles) between its endpoints, and a longer line (the “CityCat”) that runs about 16km (10 miles), and several “horizontal” routes which provide crossings of the river–connecting two ports on the opposite shore. The ferries used are high-speed (25 knots) catamarans.

The services considered by the Portland study–a line running from Oregon City to Portland, and a “circulator” connecting various destinations in downtown Portland (service to St. Johns and Vancouver was eliminated as impractical), are all “vertical” services, essentially. Performance was adequate–a line running from Oregon City to Salmon Street, stopping in Milwaukie, would take about 48 minutes for the trip; similar to the parallel bus routes. However, cost was a significant issue.

My suspicion, though, is that Portland-focused service is the wrong service to provide.

When do ferries work best?

Ferries work best, when they can outperform overland routes (including bridge crossing). The best chance of this occurs when a ferry crosses a waterway a short distance, in a location where there is no bridge nearby. Many of the Brisbane routes meet this criteria; as do other ferry services closer to home (such as the SeaBus in Vancouver, BC; and the Washington State Ferries connecting Seattle with Vashon Island and the Olympic Peninsula). Ferry services which run lengthwise along a river generally get outperformed by land-based transportation. And the routes which were considered by the City of Portland either are “vertical” services, for which competing local bus service offers similar performance while serving more useful destinations, or the downtown circulator–which has tons of competition from the city’s plethora of bridges and excellent downtown transit.

What of horizontal routes that don’t have competition from bridges (or at least bridges useful for a given mode?)

There are several places for that which come to mind.

  • Between Milwaukie and Lake Oswego. Ignoring the UPRR rail bridge, the nearest river crossings are the Sellwood Bridge to the north, and the Abernathy (I-205) Bridge to the south. A Lake Oswego/Oak Grove connection might work as well. A good question exists as to whether or not there would be sufficient usage to make this worthwhile, obviously, but I’ll get to that.
  • Depending on what happens with the CRC; between Hayden Island and Vancouver. Obviously, there is an existing bridge here (the Interstate Bridge), but this bridge is frequently congested–and more importantly, is nearly useless for pedestrians and bikes. (There is a sidewalk, but it’s reported to be a terrifying experience). If the Yellow Line were extended across the south channel to Hayden Island, a ferry connection could take passengers across the rest of the river into downtown Vancouver. Were the CRC built, a ferry in this location would no longer be viable, but as an alternative, there might be potential.

  • Washougal to Fairview. The closest drive is west to I-205, across the Glenn Jackson Bridge, and back east. This is probably the least likely idea discussed here, given the small sizes of the communities involved, but there it is.

A good objection to all of these proposed routes is a lack of “critical mass” involved. The City of Portland plan attempts to build a more comprehensive system, necessary for increased ridership. But what if the routes, rather than being viewed as shore-to-shore connections, were built to bridge (heh) the gaps in the existing transit systems? I’ve assumed that transit service would be provided to the terminals; but what if it were taken a step further? What if ferry service and connecting bus/MAX service were integrated together? What if riders could travel from Tigard to Lake Oswego, transfer to a waiting ferry, cross to Milwaukie and then transfer again to a waiting bus, all on the same ticket? (And what if the service was presented as a contiguous line, that just happens to have a ferry section in the middle?) Could such a thing work?

Offhand, I don’t know. It may well be that the City and surrounding areas simply lacks the needed critical mass of people along the rivers to make any such projects worthwhile; and it may be that crosstown bus riders might object to a ferry hop (and the need for essentially two transfers), even if the services were timed so that there was no waiting.

But still–as the waters recede in Brisbane, and the city prepares to rebuild its waterborne transit system, it’s useful to explore the possibilities of transit on the river here in Portland. There are significant gaps in the region’s bridge network, and in some cases, boats might be a good way to fill them.

19 responses to “Rethinking River Transport in Portland”

  1. Good post. Thanks for the plug.

    Sometimes, opportunities for ferries are created because bridges, while present, fly too high over the riverfront district, rather the way the Ross Island Bridge flies uselessly over South Waterfront.

    The False Creek Ferries of Vancouver are interesting in this regard. They connect, for example, Granville Island to points on the downtown shore, often pretty much directly beneath high-flying bridges.

    The key to the False Creek Ferries is that they’re extremely cheap and low-overhead. Something like that might still work in Portland, once enough development was turned directly toward the river.

    Fundamentally, though, Brisbane has a lot more dense development up against the river in areas where there are no bridges. Portland’s bridgeless reaches tend to be areas where one side of the river or the other is undeveloped, or where, as in Sellwood, most development is up on a bluff, a serious hike uphill from a ferry dock.

    On the bright side, Portland is unlikely to see anywhere near as much flood damage as Brisbane, in a comparable event.

  2. Peter Wilcox, a local architect, owns the historic boats that used to ply the waters of Crater Lake. He is restoring them and has tried for years to get something going on the Willamette, either commuter service or tourist water taxis, but these do not pencil out without a public investment.

  3. Another place where a ferry might work would be to connect the industrial areas east and west of the river, north of downtown–say, Swan Island to anywhere along the western shore–this assumes that there is a demand to move people (as opposed to bulk freight, which already moves by train) between these two points.

    A few other thoughts, thinking wildly outside the proverbial box.

    Most vehicle ferries require passengers to get out of their vehicles and proceed to a lounge for the crossing; though this generally applies to longer-distance crossings. This is useful for numerous safety reasons–quicker access to lifevests and such in an emergency, and no concern about vehicles being tossed around and crushing passengers in similar circumstances.

    The Canby Ferry, OTOH, which crosses the Willamette in a narrow point, doesn’t do this–you simply drive onto the boat from one side of the river, stay in your car for the minute or so it takes to cross, and drive off on the other side. Obviously, were something to suddenly happen to the boat, passengers might find themselves trapped in their car as it sinks into the river–a dangerous prospect–but I don’t know of any such accidents occurring.

    Would a TriMet bus driving on suitably-sized ferryboat, parking in the hold (with passengers remaining inside), and riding across work–eliminating much of the perceived “transfer penalty”? Could a boat capable of holding a bus function in the shallower waters between Milwaukie and Lake O?

    Regarding the False Creek Ferries–as Jarrett mentions, the competing bridges across False Creek are all rather high–their landings are many blocks inland from the shore, especially on the south side; thus a pedestrian ferry crossing makes sense. Many of the Willamette bridges provide much better pedestrian access. And a big issue is that the eastern shore of the river has a rather large freeway sitting on it–a ferry could connect to the Esplanade, but I-5/i-84 is a significant barrier. (The UPRR tracks are another barrier).

  4. A Lake Oswego-Milwaukie ferry might be an interesting experiment. Cross at Oak Grove Road. Based on Google maps, it looks like there might have been a ferry there at one time; there appears to be a concrete pad right up to the river on the east bank at the end of Oak Grove Road, and a dock converted to park space on the west bank.

    I wonder if there’s enough Clackamas County traffic willing to pay for a ferry crossing to avoid going north to the Sellwood Bridge or south to I-205. Of course, if there WAS a ferry there once and it was abandoned, that suggests that there wasn’t enough traffic in the past to keep this particular short-cut viable.

  5. Or, the economics may have changed; many of the historic ferries were private for-profit operations which became unprofitable when competing bridges opened up.

    Or, it’s perhaps simply an abandoned boat dock, but one which never saw ferry service. Oak Grove grew as a community when the Portland Traction trolley to Oregon City opened, and later started to transform when McLoughlin Boulevard (still called by long-time residents as “the superhighway”) opened up. But by that time, most of the bridges across the Willamette had been built.

    A brief check of the Internets reveals no ferry service between Oak Grove and Lake O, though then as now, illegal crossings on the LO rail bridge were common.

    One issue facing river ferries is that in most cases–if a crossing is busy enough to make a ferry cost-effective, it is often cost effective to build a bridge instead. This gets less true as the channel gets wider–a mile-wide river is considerably more expensive to cross than a half-mile-wide river (generally far more than 2x); but the marginal expense for a ferry operation is minimal. The Willamette in this part of the metro area is only about a quarter mile wide–easy to bridge with simple box/girder architectures.

  6. Copenhagen’s water busses are small passenger ferries painted to match the city busses (they’ve even got matching digital readouts on the front like the buses). They’re great because they’re not just tourist boats (although, for the price of a 2-zone bus ticket, it’s an awesome way to see the waterfront for cheap), they’re also useful.

    It sure would be great to have ferries zig zagging up and down the Willamette from St. Johns to Milwaukie. What a commute! It might return interest to our cities’ waterfronts, too.

  7. I grew up in Oak Grove, not far from the foot of Oak Grove Blvd.

    At the time, what you see on the map was used as a neighborhood boat launch and unofficial public beach (which eroded over time). The neighbors in that area used to put on a big July 4th party.

    I don’t know about the current condition of the launch, parts of it were very deteriorated and a temporary launch was installed off to one side about 25 years ago.

    One of the oddities about it is that Oak Grove Blvd. goes down a very steep hill, and then through traffic makes a sudden and (at the time) poorly-marked left turn. If you keep going straight ahead, you eventually go into the river. This would happen on occasion, especially at night to people unfamiliar with the area. I’m not sure how frequently it happened, as a lot of it was neighborhood lore, but it did happen.

    In the 6th or 7th grade, I used to cross the Willamette in a tiny inflatable raft (the kind you’d get at Fred Meyer for $20) along with other friends who had similar rafts, innertubes, kayaks, etc., to a park across the river near Lake Oswego. Our parents weren’t as over-protective as parents these days (at least that’s the characterization). At dinner time, one of the parents would ring a giant bell (an old ship’s bell on their property) and we’d start back across the river. The eddy currents helped.

    Very little commercial traffic in that section… the main hazards came from waterskiers, drunk pleasure boaters, and log bundles floating down the river. Still, looking back on it, it’s pretty amazing what we got away with in a Huckleberry Finn sort of way.

  8. I would love to see more modes of transportation that do not use roads which are heavily congested but I do not feel a ferry is viable and would be sustainable in Portland. I lived in the Bay Area for years and have taken the ferry but honestly even in the Bay Area the ferry is more of a novelty then a real option when it comes to getting somewhere timely and cost effective manner.

    I really cannot see a Ferry in Portland because of debris and other obstacles in the rivers that a ferry would have to dodge…. The willamette is dirty…. so is the San Francisco Bay but in the grand scheme of things the bay is ready for mass water based transit due to the various Port’s and marine military operations.

    If a ferry were to come to Portland it would be costly because the river would have to be cleared so that a ferry could operate at an efficient speed and not have to worry about any obstacles.

  9. A bit more information on the Canby Ferry.

    The current vessel used for the Canby Ferry has the following specs (info cribbed from above link):

    *Length Overall: 55’8″
    *Length at Waterline: 53’2″
    *Beam Overall: 36′
    *Cruising Speed: 6.4 mph
    *Passenger Capacity: 49
    *Vehicle Capacity: 6 autos or 25 tons
    *Propulsion: Two 75 HP Z-Drives

    The length and capacity of the vehicle in use is more than sufficient to store a single TriMet bus. While no bus service uses the Canby Ferry that I’m aware of, trucks do use it. The ferry can carry up to six autos. It has sufficient deck space for two 40′ busses, but that would be way over the weight limit (35-40 tons, depending on the model), so only one bus at a time would be permitted on this vessel type.

    The boat used by the Wheatland Ferry, connecting Marion and Yamhill counties (the nearest bridges being in Newberg and Salem) is larger, capable of holding 40 tons and with a 60′ deck–it could potentially hold two (empty) TriMet busses, though if crushloaded the limit might also be exceeded. The other Willamette River ferry in operation, the Buena Vista ferry (located between Albany and Independence) is presently closed for replacement; a new ferry will go into operation this April.

    As far as obstacles go–the sort of obstacles one needs to worry about are small boats (including personal watercraft) and swimmers; and in these cases the danger is not to the ferry but to the obstacle. Common debris floating down the river is generally not an issue for a larger vessel.

  10. The Canby Ferry stats do point out one other advantage for waterborne transit:

    It’s very energy-efficient.

    The ferry is powered by two 75HP electric motors–150HP is the same sized engine as found in a mid-sized car. Yet it can haul an order of magnitude more weight. Obviously, it’s significantly speed-limited, but for a narrow channel crossing, overall speed doesn’t matter as much.

  11. Fascinating post – thanks! Given the desire not to further pollute the river with intense urban development right next to it, we may not get to the point where other cities are that historically had more development. Of course, if we were to bury I-5 and reconnect the inner eastside to the river…

    I wouldn’t push the idea that the current I-5 bridges are “useless” for people walking or on bikes. It’s not terrifying for moderately experienced cyclists – it’s just not pleasant. And it’s not easy to get to from the south – lots of curly-Qs next to major highways or MLK. If I were to fix one or the other, I’d rather have the approach fixed. The bridge isn’t very long, so you can go slow. Once you’re on the Vancouver side, life’s cake – right into downtown or onto the river path.

  12. A few more thoughts on the Canby Ferry.

    The overland route to get from one shore to the opposite shore (which requires using the Boone Bridge on I-5 to cross the Willamette, and the Knights Bridge in Canby to cross the Molalla, is about 15 miles length. The Boone Bridge itself only 4 miles upstream from the ferry, but crossing the Mollala requires a diversion of two miles to the south.

    If one assumes that most trips originate or end in Canby or beyond, the distance savings involved in using the ferry drop considerably. Yet 85,000 motorists (and numerous pedestrians and bicyclists, who cross for free) used the ferry last year.

    According to figures for 2003, the Canby Ferry had an operating budget of $328k, and a farebox recovery ratio of around 25%. (I can’t find more recent figures–that year, 217k vehicle trips were made, considerably higher than in more recent years). The larger Wheatland ferry had only slightly higher costs that year $328k, but a much higher FRR of 85%. The smaller Buena Vista Ferry cost $95k, had a FRR of 10%, but only 8000 rides that year. The Wheatland Ferry serves an important freight corridor, connecting Yamhill and Polk County agriculture to Interstate 5, and is 12 river miles from the nearest bridge (the Marion Street Bridge in downtown Salem)–my suspicion is that far more trucks (which pay a higher fare) than passenger autos use it, resulting in the higher operating margins.

  13. I’m a little late to this discussion but your post really caught my attention and after perusing through the Portland Department of Transportation’s ferry feasibility study I have a few observations to make. In your article you make a good case why a commuter route traveling the length of the river would likely not be competitive. You also make a reasonable case for a Lake Oswego to Milwaukie route. Lastly, you suggest that a ferry could be integrated with other transportation modes.

    The study’s proposal suggests two parallel commuter routes: 1) Lake Oswego – CBD and 2) Oregon City – Milwaukie – CBD. The study points out that Oregon City is a minor market (est. 32-66 riders per day) and would only be feasible if it was served by the same run as Milwaukie.

    I’m not professing to be a transit expert but I do consider myself as having an above average understanding of transit/transportation and of general economics. I would be very interested in seeing what the study would look like if they dropped Oregon City entirely and combined the two routes into only one route starting in Lake Oswego, stopping in Milwaukie before continuing on toward Portland. I’m sure this would provide a better utilization of the vessels. If using the same number of vessels, it would act as increasing the frequency for both cities. This proposal also serves to connect the two cities, at least in commute direction during peak hours. With the infrastructure built up for the commuter routes it wouldn’t be nearly as costly to add smaller (and slower) local ferries between the two cities.

    The study only recommends only one stop in Portland, a terminus near Salmon St, about two blocks north of the Hawthorne Bridge. I suggest the route could have more success if it added a stop in the South Waterfront District, preferably at a new dock built as close to the Portland Aerial Tram as possible. This would provide excellent access to additional ridership going to OHSU as well as to the streetcar. When the east side streetcar is built a stop at OMSI could add significant additional ridership.

    Another option, though probably less attractive, is to terminate at the Sellwood Bridge or close by. The Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project proposes extending the streetcar from the South Waterfront District down to Lake Oswego. They are also considering a “minimum operable segment” that would terminate at the Sellwood Bridge. The ferries could act as an extension of the line from the bridge to Lake Oswego and have the added benefit of also serving Milwaukie.

  14. Expanding on my previous post:

    A stop at a new dock at NW Davis St (not in the study) could compliment the Salmon St dock adding better access to the norther part of the CBD. It would probably be time-competitive with surface transportation from Salmon St. With a MAX station only about a block and a half from the new dock swift access to the Rose Garden and the Lloyd District would also be possible, increasing potential ridership.

    In regards to efficiency and local Lake Oswego – Milwaukie service, I believe that a couple vessels being used for the commuter service could also provide frequent daytime local service instead of sitting downtown unused. The first and/or second vessel of the day could return south, providing a necessary “lifeline” reverse-commute service and then operate the local service. It could also be used to connect to the potential Sellwood streetcar terminal which would allow for additional “lifeline” opportunities and act as an extension to the streetcar line as stated in the last paragraph of my prior post.

  15. The closest thing to river transit in the region is the Canby Ferry, a low-capacity cable ferry which hauls a cars across the river south of Stafford.

    You forgot to mention the Wheatland Ferry between Dayton and Salem. This is a very busy route and probably needs to be candidate for a bridge (for the last 50 years). My family has resided in this area since before Portland even existed. They owned what is now the Bolton neighborhood in West Linn (or Linn City or West Oregon City). I have old photos from the 1800’s and early 1900’s of Ferry Boats which went up and down the Willamette – even as far down as Salem. If they did it then, why can’t we do it now? Maybe it has something to do with environmentalists, fish and dredging?

  16. The Wheatland Ferry is discussed quite a bit in the comments. I left it out of the original article because it’s well outside the Portland metro area.

    As far as why ferries don’t ply the Willamette River today, environmentalists have nothing to do with it. Riverboat ferries don’t need particularly deep channels, so dredging has nothing to do with it; and surface navigation is generally not a problem for fish (plenty of private boats ply the river today). The reason you don’t see many of them now is that in the 1800s and early 1900s, there wasn’t much competition from land-based travel, either road or rail. Rail lines went in during the late 19th century, roads soon followed, and bridges were built, and that was the end of the commercial ferry business.

    There’s also the little manner of Willamette Falls. While the locks are still open, every few years it seems that they are proposed for closure, as little if any commercially significant river traffic uses them.

    But it ain’t the fault of environmentalists that you can’t catch a boat down to Salem.

  17. I might add, there are plenty of other barriers to navigation on the river that weren’t around 100+ years ago: numerous low bridges (including at least one pipeline bridge near Newberg), electric cable ferries like Canby and Wheatland (which limit both the keel depth and the height of boats), etc.

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