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Buena Vista Ferry: An up-and-down first year

BUENA VISTA -- The new Buena Vista Ferry's first year in operation -- perhaps due to mechanical hiccups and severe weather -- wasn't quite what operators and users would have hoped for.

The Buena Vista Ferry across the Willamette River has seen ridership increase 35 to 40 percent in the last year.

Photo by Pete Strong

The Buena Vista Ferry across the Willamette River has seen ridership increase 35 to 40 percent in the last year.

July 24, 2012

BUENA VISTA -- The new Buena Vista Ferry's first year in operation -- perhaps due to mechanical hiccups and severe weather -- wasn't quite what operators and users would have hoped for.

But it wasn't a bad year, either.

With an extended season, ridership and revenue was up, but mechanical failures and weather-related closures have hampered operations.

"Ridership has increased," said Alan Haley, public works manager for Marion County, which operates the ferry. "It's not at the level that I would like to see, but we are doing better."

The county received a $3.2 million grant from the federal government in 2009 to help pay for a larger, electric-powered ferry, replacing its more than 50-year-old diesel-power predecessor.

Haley had wanted to see a 50 percent increase in ridership in the first year, but the ferry has fallen short of that goal, with growth more in the 35 to 40 percent range.

Buena Vista Ferry Comparison

Graphic by Pete Strong

Buena Vista Ferry Comparison

Part of that might be due to a number of closures because of unusually high water levels and electrical system problems on the new boat.

The ferry was closed for two-and-a-half days last week due to mechanical problems. This has been a recurring issue this year, with unanticipated repairs closing the ferry for 18 days since July 1, 2011. High water has closed the ferry 67 days this season.

Closures impact tourism and business in the area, according to local residents.

Claudia Austin-Prevost, the owner of Buena Vista House bed and breakfast located near the ferry crossing, said her business operates on reservations, so she is able to call customers to warn them if the ferry is closed.

Unexpected closures are more of an inconvenience to local residents who use the ferry to commute and for recreation, she said.

Haley said the number of days the boat has been shut down is the biggest disappointment of the new ferry's first year. He said there was no expectation of this many failures.

"We pretty much expected it to run like it was built to run," he said. "We planned to be closed for high water and dredging."

Haley added any closures beyond that have a bigger impact than just the riders lost during those days.

"It's not good to have the expectation the that the boat is not running," he said. "When we have mechanical issues, it's disappointing."

Haley said with last week's replacement of a faulty motor controller, those problems may end.

He said the ferry's longest closure happened shortly after the ferry began operating last summer. The overhead cable that winches the boat back and forth snapped. Haley said the incident was a design issue and has since been fixed, but it took several days.

"That won't happen again," Haley said.

Jack Platt, the owner of two dairies near Independence and in Turner, said he is glad to still have the crossing available.

He said closures are a nuisance, but when open the new boat can hold bigger loads, meaning he can send full feed trucks across. That cuts fuel costs and shortens commute time between the farms.

"It's a lot more efficient and safer," Platt said. "We don't have to take big equipment through town."

Platt's alternate route has equipment and feed trucks running through Salem -- not an ideal situation -- and it takes 45 minutes compared to 20 on the ferry.

Having the ferry open seven days per week and for more hours each day has helped, too.

"Overall, we are very happy," Platt said. "It's been an asset for us."

Austin-Prevost, who was on the committee that worked to save the ferry, said she had hoped with a new boat and longer season, both Polk and Marion counties would have invested more in advertising the ferry to promote tourism.

So far, she believes there hasn't been enough effort on that front.

"It certainly seems like it would be a boon for both communities if it were promoted and supported properly," she said.

Haley said Marion County is still planning to install more signs, but needs grant funding to do it.

Haley added he hopes for smoother sailing this year.

"I want to see the next year be better," he said, "but all and all, I would say we had a good (first) year."

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