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The Uncertain Fate Of The Canby Ferry

The Canby Ferry is a piece of Oregon history, but it's also costing Clackamas County about $400,000 a year. The county is trying to figure out if it can make up the difference.

The Canby Ferry will celebrate its 105th anniversary in July, but it may not celebrate many more as the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners struggles to decide how to keep it afloat with lacking revenue.

The ferry, which runs across the Willamette River from Canby to Wilsonville, is one of the last three ferries in the state.

It sees an average of 50,000 riders a year, but that hasn’t been enough to weigh its profits from losses.

“It varies greatly how much the revenues from tolls fall short of costs. Roughly the average is from $300,000 to $400,000 a year,” said Mike Bezner, Clackamas County’s assistant director of transportation.

The difference comes out of the county’s road fund.

A feasibility study found the ferry is expected to cost more than $16 million in the span of 2025 to 2049. That includes maintenance, operations and personnel costs as well as a ferry replacement slated to fall somewhere within those years.

The ferry runs seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. as often as commuters show up on either side of the river, but its hours can vary depending on the time of year. It also doesn’t run in inclement weather or when the river level is 70 feet or higher.

Mike Bezner (left) and Randy Harmon ride the Canby Ferry. 

Mike Bezner (left) and Randy Harmon ride the Canby Ferry. 

Meerah Powell/OPB

“It does have quite a bit of historical value as we learn more and more about it,” said Randy Harmon, Transportation Operations Manager for the county’s Transportation and Development Department.

The ferry was purchased in Newberg by the Canby Business Men’s Club in 1914, according to Clackamas County. It went through multiple upgrades, replacements and periods of inactivity before the county took it over in 1952.

The current iteration of the ferry is named the M.J. Lee II. That version was constructed in 1997. It can handle six cars at a time. It costs $5 for cars and $2 for pedestrians or cyclists to cross one-way.

The ridership for the ferry varies throughout the seasons, Harmon said.

“High points of course are when we have the Dahlia Festival or the County Fair. Summer months are much higher,” he said. “Winter, basically starting in November through March, is the slower time of the year.”

Valerie Lindon takes her daughter Shelby to Athey Creek Middle School in Tualatin every day on the ferry.

“It’s a lot easier than having to sit in traffic,” Lindon said. “It’s a super direct route for us. We get off the ferry and have a straight shot to her school instead of a super roundabout way on the I-5 or 99-E, so it’s super convenient.”

Lindon lives in Canby, but says she had only taken the ferry sporadically before she began regularly using it last September to take Shelby to school.

The two said they would be sad to see the ferry go.

Valerie Lindon and her daughter Shelby ride the Canby Ferry to Shelby's middle school in Tualatin. 

Valerie Lindon and her daughter Shelby ride the Canby Ferry to Shelby’s middle school in Tualatin. 

Meerah Powell/OPB

“We love it. It’s super fun. Most people don’t say, ‘Hey, I took the ferry to school,’ you know? So, we would miss it,” Lindon said.

Mike Hurtado also lives in Canby. He’s been riding the ferry regularly for about a year and uses it to get to work in Tualatin.

“This allows me not to deal with the traffic on I-5 and it’s pretty peaceful on the way to work and on the way home,” Hurtado said. “It saves me time, but it also gives me peace of mind. I think it’s just a beautiful, nostalgic thing to do.”

Local business owner Mallory Gwynn says the ferry helps downtown businesses.

“A lot of the businesses downtown do benefit from the traffic,” Gwynn said. “Certainly the successes of our business doesn’t count on that, but it augments that and it helps us.”

Gwynn and his family have lived in Clackamas County for more than 20 years. They run Gwynn’s Coffeehouse, which is right off the street that connects the ferry to downtown. Before that, Gwynn was the executive director of Canby’s Chamber of Commerce.

He attended a Clackamas County Board of Commissioners’ listening session in February along with about 70 other local residents to discuss options for the ferry’s future.

About 20 people spoke at the meeting, offering a variety of potential solutions and opinions on the ferry situation.

Some proposed that the ferry could sell space to advertisers, others said the area could create a tax district to fund the ferry.

Most people who spoke said they did not use it to commute every day. Some speakers even said they rarely, if ever, rode the ferry, but still, people said they treasured it as fixture of Canby.

Along with public input, the county has been exploring options of its own.

Ferry operator Lawrence Welch welcomes commuters to alight the Canby Ferry on March 14, 2019.

Ferry operator Lawrence Welch welcomes commuters to alight the Canby Ferry on March 14, 2019.

Arya Surowidjojo/OPB

If not closing it, the county has considered increasing tolls to keep it open or creating a bridge in its place — though that idea was shut down after significant public opposition.

The next closest crossings over the Willamette River are Interstate 5 in Wilsonville and Oregon Route 99-East in Oregon City, both about 10 miles outside of Canby.

If the county does decide to keep ferry going, Bezner said it can’t stay the same.

“The Board has said they don’t want to keep it as is, so what are some of our options? That’s what we’re looking at now,” he said.

Over the past decade, labor has made up the bulk of ferry costs — that includes paying ferry operators, mechanics and other maintenance workers.

Those personnel costs have made up about 64 percent of the ferry’s average yearly cost. Cutting labor or the ferry’s hours of operation has been suggested.

“I feel like we’re here to provide a service, and so I think cutting hours is a poor way to cut costs,” said Rory Quinn, a full-time ferry operator since 2012. “We’re not here to make money; we’re here to provide a service to the community.”

Lawrence Welch is another ferry operator. He says the best part of his job is getting to talk with riders.

“Working here, it’s really helped me grow,” Welch said, “and I think it’s just great to maybe make an impact on someone’s life.”

Ferry operator Lawrence Welch pilots the Canby Ferry during the afternoon commute on March 14, 2019.

Ferry operator Lawrence Welch pilots the Canby Ferry during the afternoon commute on March 14, 2019.

Arya Surowidjojo/OPB

Welch said one rider he got to know well recently died.

“It makes me sad because I got to know them on a personal level and I’d like to think that maybe I had an influence on how their days might’ve been,” he said, “and I actually saw them on the day that they passed and didn’t know that, and I’m glad I got to have that last interaction.”

Welch and Quinn said they would both continue to work with the county if they lost their ferry jobs, though they are unsure in what capacity.

In his coffeehouse, Gwynn elaborated. He said to lose the ferry would be losing a piece of the community’s history.

“There would be sadness for a lot of people in a short period of time, then like all things, it will be forgotten if it’s taken out and the next generation will never know it was there,” Gwynn said. “That’s the harsh reality.”

Clackamas County staff will update the Board of Commissioners in the early fall after studying all cost-cutting opportunities. In the meantime, the ferry will continue to run as it has for the past century.

Canby Ferry