New weekend service tests one goal of city's 'renaissance' plan

The new Willamette ferry is smaller than a dragon boat and slower than the Portland streetcar, but Sue Stone thinks it's just right.

'It's so Portland,' Stone said of the 24-foot 'river bus' that made its debut during the weekend. 'The river, the bikes, now this boat. It's not too big; it's not too commercial. It's perfect.'

Stone and her husband, Mike, who live in Northeast Portland, took a break from their waterfront bike ride Sunday to try out the ferry. Their positive reviews were echoed by many of the more than 100 people who took the free ride on the Willamette during the weekend.

Volunteers from the nonprofit RiversWest Small Craft Center carried up to eight passengers at a time between four docks along the downtown core Friday through Sunday.

The pilot project, which will offer free rides each weekend through Aug. 10, is part of the city's River Renaissance effort to reconnect Portlanders with the Willamette River. City government is spending millions to clean up the river, restore the shoreline and redevelop the waterfront, but its contribution to the Willamette Ferry is a modest $5,000.

Mayor Vera Katz called a public water transportation system a 'long-held dream' in Portland during a launching ceremony for the ferry Friday afternoon. She called for water taxis, ferries, even gondolas.

Water transit plans have been simmering in Portland for 20 years or more. But no one has yet developed a workable business plan, partly because of high insurance costs.

That hasn't stopped the city's boating aficionados from dreaming and scheming, however.

'We've already got the infrastructure in place,' said Peter Wilcox, president of RiversWest and the main driver behind the ferry project. 'We can do this in not just an environmentally friendly way but in an environmentally innovative way.'

The ferry can do 10 knots. Passengers sit about 2 feet from the water, as if in a canoe. A small, 5-horsepower engine provides power with little pollution.

Eventually, Wilcox would like to see a craft powered by clean hydrogen.

Wilcox is calling for a citywide water transit system that would include a downtown shuttle and commuter lines stretching upstream to Lake Oswego and downstream to St. Johns.

The cost to riders could be a dollar, with public funds covering the rest, Wilcox suggested.

For now, however, the ferry is more about novelty than transportation. Kim Epskamp, who piloted the boat Sunday, said many of the people waiting for rides were surprised: 'They'd be standing there on the dock waiting for this big ship to show up, and then here we come. They'd say they were waiting for the ferry and we'd say, 'We are the ferry.' '

The ferry runs on the hour between RiverPlace Marina, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Eastbank Esplanade near the Hawthorne Bridge and a dock near the Steel Bridge's floating walkway.

The hours are 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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