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Potential St. Helens ferry faces obstacles

Recent examples from Alaska, Washington suggest an expensive process

Photo Credit: FILE - The ferry dock on Puget Island, Wash., in Wahkiakum County. A small ferry shuttles between the dock and a terminal in Westport, across the Columbia River, multiple times per day. A ferry between the larger communities of St. Helens and Woodland, Wash., could end up being a significantly bigger undertaking.Opening up a ferry service between St. Helens and the state of Washington could be a costly and difficult proposition, recent evidence suggests.

The St. Helens City Council agreed in principle to begin considering options for a ferry at a meeting last Wednesday, Sept. 17. The discussion was started by Councilor Keith Locke, a candidate for mayor this fall, who suggested the Boise Cascade Co. property being purchased by the city this year could be a potential site for a ferry terminal.

“Going to develop the riverfront property down here in St. Helens, there’s been some talk that it could be a good spot for it,” Locke said Thursday, Sept. 25. He said he wanted to start the discussion now because “something like that’s going to take a lot of work” and “buy-in from numerous agencies,” both in Oregon and across the Columbia River in Washington.

Decades ago, a car ferry operated between Goble and Kalama, Wash. While the idea of a ferry route has occasionally been mooted in St. Helens and communities across the river, like Woodland, Wash., in recent years, it has never advanced very far.

Only one ferry is still in continuous service across the border between Oregon and Washington: the small craft operated by Wahkiakum County, Wash., in between Washington’s Puget Island and the unincorporated community of Westport in northwest Clatsop County.

The Wahkiakum ferry is heavily subsidized by Wahkiakum County and the Washington State Department of Transportation. Pete Ringen, who heads the Wahkiakum County Public Works Department, said the state spends about $500,000 per year on ferry operations, while the county contributes about $120,000. Operating costs are increasing, he added.

“We do collect fares for that, but we do operate it at a loss,” said Ringen.

The Wahkiakum ferry route is well established. It has been operated since 1925, and has been a service of Wahkiakum County since 1959. It saw 72,702 passengers last year, Ringen said.

“We’ve got a lot of people that live here that go over to the Wauna mill and back and forth on the ferry,” said Ringen, referring to the Georgia-Pacific paper mill not far from the Westport terminal. In summer months, he added, tourist use of the ferry increases.

St. Helens also has workers from Clark and Cowlitz counties, across the river in Washington, as well as residents who work in those counties. A ferry could drastically shorten the distance they have to travel to and from the Columbia County seat, potentially reducing their commute times significantly.

“Right now, we’re kind of a little bit isolated from I-5,” said Locke, referring to the interstate freeway that links Seattle, Portland, Salem and other major cities in the region, but is about a 40-minute drive from St. Helens in favorable traffic conditions. “Especially straight across the river, it’s at least an hour-plus trip to get five miles across the river, whereas a ferry would drastically reduce that.”

But ferries are not cheap.

The Wahkiakum ferry carries just 12 cars; it is due to be replaced early next year by a 23-car ferry, which the county is purchasing with about $5.7 million of county, state and federal dollars, according to Ringen. It applied for significant grants to offset the cost.

WSDOT, which operates an extensive ferry system to serve communities in the Puget Sound region, put a 144-car ferry in service on a route between Mukilteo, Wash., and Clinton, Wash., early this summer. The Tokitae, the first of a new Olympic Class of ferries, cost $144 million.

A ferry route between St. Helens and Washington would also need terminals at either end. A new ferry terminal that opened last year near Metlakatla, Alaska, cost about $10 million, the Juneau Empire reported.

Dave Thompson, an Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman, said historically, the state of Oregon has not played a significant role in financially supporting river ferries.

“It would likely be very expensive to build docking terminals and special purpose ferries for a new public system,” he added.

The idea of a ferry in St. Helens is still in the early discussion phase. State Sen. Betsy Johnson, frequently the chief advocate in Salem for infrastructure projects in Columbia County, said she has talked about the concept with City Councilor Susan Conn but has not been involved in any deeper discussions.

“As far as I’m concerned, there has been no presentation, and I haven’t seen any plans,” said Johnson Monday, adding, “It has not progressed to a point that I have any knowledge of it.”

Johnson noted that there are a number of logistical issues that would need to be worked out for a ferry to enter service.

Dredging of the river bottom would likely be needed to give a ferry space to operate. Potential conflicts between the ferry route and traffic in the river’s shipping channel would also need to be ironed out. Ferry terminals in Oregon and Washington would be subject to different permitting processes, due to being located in separate states.

Still, the ferry idea has received an undeniably positive public response.

The Spotlight’s story last Friday on the ferry discussion was shared on Facebook more than 30 times and received dozens of comments, most of them favorable toward the idea of a ferry between St. Helens and Washington.

When asked directly, Locke dismissed the idea that bringing up the subject of a ferry was a campaign tactic.

“The only reason I brought it up is just because we’re developing the waterfront property here,” said Locke.

When the ferry concept was explored in the past, the timing was never right, Locke added.

“Maybe now’s a good time,” he said. “You just don’t know.”

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