A new study will examine whether it makes sense to establish a passenger ferry or water taxi service between South Portland and the Portland waterfront, pictured here. Mike Kelley / For The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND — A new traffic study aims to collect data that might put to rest once and for all the feasibility of a passenger ferry service linking South Portland and Portland.

“There isn’t a hard and fast study that’s done the work we’re doing now,” said Milan Nevajda, director of planning and development in South Portland.

Conducted by Nevajda and the Greater Portland Council of Governments, the study will examine traffic issues on a stretch of Broadway in South Portland, but also will “examine the feasibility of a marine-based transit connection to and from downtown Portland,” GPCOG said.

The concept is not new. Passenger transit service, be it a ferry, water taxi or similar service, has been a perennial topic of discussion dating at least back to the construction of the Casco Bay Bridge in 1997, Nevajda said.

Informal discussions have been going on for “literally decades,” according to Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman, who said he welcomes a data-driven study that could put the issue to rest.

“There has been no verdict because there has been no in-depth discussion,” Needelman said.

Both cities have collaborated on a joint climate action plan and maritime issues such as harbor dredging. If they work together on a ferry service, Needelman said,  it will “reinforce the cities of Portland and South Portland as maritime communities.”

Christopher Chop, the council’s transportation director, said the council and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transit Authority (PACTS) paid for 60% of the $82,000 study, while South Portland paid for 20%, and PK Realty Management paid for the remaining 20%. Chop said the council produces its own long-term transportation plan every five years, and will get started on the newest plan early next year. That, coupled with interest from South Portland officials, he said, drove the interest in setting up the study.

Chop said both Portland and South Portland have conducted traffic studies over the years, studying travel between cities in general, but this will be more focused on the specific issue of marine transit.

“We want to provide a regional, holistic perspective,” he said.

PK Realty Management owns and operates a 30-acre parcel of land on South Portland’s waterfront. In past interviews, company president Jennifer Packard said developers are considering what and how to build on the land. This week, Packard said her company helped fund the study because any passenger transit service would be a factor in her company’s development plans.

“The water transit piece is a part of that,” she said.

Packard added, however, that it would only be important if such a service is possible, and more importantly, if there’s enough public demand for it.

“We would love for it to happen in a really good way, but it’s only really useful (to us) if it’s useful (to the community),” she said.

The study will take a year, after which Nevajda said PACTS would produce a detailed report. Among other data, Nevajda said the study is expected to determine:

  • How many people would use the service
  • Reasons for travel — whether it’s commuting to work or visiting attractions such as Portland’s waterfront or South Portland’s Bug Light Park
  • How much will passengers pay
  • Could the city build a pier or dock, and how that would be funded
  • What type and size of boat, such as a water taxi or larger vessel such as a ferry

The other issue, of course, is how much would the service cost, both to set up and to manage. Nevajda said most transit systems, on the water, roads or rails, do not entirely fund their annual budgets by ticket or token sales alone.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a gap,” he said.

The big question then, Nevajda said, was how to cover the gap. One common solution, he said, is getting transportation subsidies from the state or federal government. It’s what many communities do with other transit systems, he said, and a ferry service of this kind would almost certainly qualify.

Nevajda stressed that the study is just that: a study, not a proposal to establish a ferry or any other kind of transport.

“This is doing the initial screening,” he said.

Chop also noted the study will not necessarily recommend any action, merely present potential options.

“We’re hoping to look at a spectrum of opportunity, rather than just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he said.

The council, in its announcement, said the study’s organizers will hold a public hearing on the study in general on Monday, Nov. 9. A second public hearing on the study’s progress to date is planned for March 2021. In the meantime, the council is asking the public to take a survey on the subject. Click here to take part.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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