SOUTH PORTLAND — A ferry service to Portland could be costly to operate and would do little to decrease traffic congestion along the Broadway corridor from the Casco Bay Bridge to Bug Light Park.

That’s a preliminary finding of an ongoing transportation study funded by the city, the Greater Portland Council of Governments and a major landowner in the eastern waterfront district who questions the current scope of the ferry analysis.

The Cushing’s Point Transportation Study, to be completed in August and released in October, is expected to recommend a host of other transportation upgrades, including improved bus routes, bike lanes, traffic lights and crosswalks.

Preliminary findings were presented Monday night during a virtual public meeting hosted by the city, the council of governments and transportation experts working on the study. The final report will be used in grant applications to fund improvements as they are approved by city officials.

City Planning Director Milan Nevajda said the section of Broadway that runs from the Mill Creek shopping area to the waterfront near Southern Maine Community College has little capacity for expansion, like many roads in the city. Most of it is single lane and passes through residential neighborhoods.

To solve traffic and congestion challenges in the area, “we really need to be creative. The more mental power we can apply to this, the better,” Nevajda said. He urged residents to submit ideas before the study is completed later this summer.

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Based on the study’s preliminary results, however, a ferry service wouldn’t provide significant congestion relief on Broadway, a peninsula artery that carries about 20,000 cars daily.

Based on an analysis of existing and projected commuters within a 10-minute drive of Bug Light Park, a 40-person vessel running directly across the Fore River to Portland would be feasible in the future, according to a preliminary report by T.Y. Lin International Group and McMahon Transportation Engineers & Planners.

Ferry service in South Portland

A transportation study is underway to address traffic congestion in South Portland, including the possibility of ferry service to Portland. Map courtesy of Greater Portland Council of Governments

However, a ferry service “will most likely be an amenity and will not play a key role in reducing vehicle usage in this area of South Portland and in the region,” the study found. A ferry crossing Portland Harbor would be much smaller than the mass transit ferries that serve the Casco Bay islands.

A two-boat ferry service would cost more than $450,000 per year to operate and likely would have to be subsidized by taxpayers or another funding source unless there was significant housing built nearby, the study found.

The study determined that a ferry service would capture 5 percent of the 2,612 current daily commuters – 131 users – who work on the Portland peninsula and live within a 7-minute drive of Cushing’s Point at Bug Light Park. Those riders would make a total of 26,200 round trips per year. Occasional commuters, recreational users and ferry riders from outside South Portland would bring the passenger round trip total to 75,585 per year.

Still, a ferry service with the current population would attract about 30 riders during peak commuter hours and operate with a yearly deficit of about $18,763, said Mitchell Rasor, a landscape architect working on the study.

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If 468 new homes were built within the 7-minute commuter area, a ferry service would break even or generate a small annual profit of $16,000, the study found. If 1,000 new homes were built within the same area, the profit margin would jump to $50,000, but still would remove only 150 to 200 vehicle trips per day from Broadway.

However, the study noted there are 13,400 residents living within 7.5 minutes of the waterfront, with 36 percent of households earning more than $100,000 per year.

The study suggested that a “solid residential base with high income levels would be able to pay for ferry service if it can be made to be a more attractive alternative to driving.”

The study didn’t consider operating a ferry service as a mass transit option for people traveling from outside South Portland. It wouldn’t make sense to draw more traffic to an area of the city that’s already dealing with congestion, parking problems and residents who are averse to additional development.

“The optimum situation would be to have lots of people within walking and biking distance of the ferry,” said Andrew Clark, a transportation planner with the council of governments. “It would be counterproductive to have many people driving to the ferry.”

The study anticipated little demand for water transit from Portland to South Portland. It also didn’t consider the possibility of new development that might generate additional traffic, such as a major employer or even a large mixed-use neighborhood along Broadway.

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And it didn’t factor in commuters from Portland to Southern Maine Community College in a significant way, which concerns Jennifer Packard, president of PK Realty Management, which paid for one-third of the $82,000 transportation study.

‘They didn’t talk to SMCC,” Packard said. “They didn’t factor in the potential for SMCC students to use water transit. It needs more study at this point.”

In 2018, PK Realty purchased a 30-acre tract of former shipyard land in the study area and plans to use its findings to guide development of the mixed-use Liberty Shipyard Project, Packard said.

The idea of re-establishing ferry service between the two cities has been discussed for years, harkening back to a time before bridges spanned the Fore River, when ferries ran between Portland’s waterfront and the Ferry Village neighborhood in South Portland.

More recently, the late John Cacoulidis, former owner of the shipyard land, pitched a plan to build a $900 million high-rise convention center that included a cable-car system across Portland Harbor.

Packard said water transit between South Portland and Portland should be able to operate as a business to serve the community year round and not be driven by tourism alone.

Clark, the council of governments transportation planner, said there’s definitely room for additional conversations and further study of potential ferry ridership among SMCC students.

City officials wanted some ballpark projections for potential ridership and costs associated with operating a ferry service to Portland, Clark said.

“I don’t think we’re going to write it off,” Clark said. “The city is interested in re-examining those projections in the future, especially if there’s significant housing development.”


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