How much to pay to preserve past?

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Five years ago, Bracken Burns, then a Washington County commissioner, was lambasted for his comments about the Ferry Boat Frederick. He said it did not make sense for taxpayers to keep subsidizing the ferry service between Fredericktown and LaBelle, on the Fayette County side of the Monongahela River, because it would become obsolete once the Mon-Fayette Expressway bridge opened. He called the ferry a “relic of the past.”


Indeed, it is. A ferry has operated there since 1790, long before any bridges crossed the river. The boat now being used was built in 1948 and has been in service since 1973. It’s the only cable-operated ferry east of the Mississippi River.


The public rallied behind the ferry. Even those who had never set foot or tire on its steel deck were critical of the commissioner for his assault on the area’s heritage.


Burns later changed his mind about ending the service after a transportation study by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission determined that the service would still be needed after the expressway bridge opened in 2012.


And it is still used, though mostly out of convenience rather than necessity. Before the expressway bridge was completed, the ferry carried 200 cars a day, Monday through Saturday. That number has decreased to 90 per day since the bridge opened. Many of those using the ferry do so to commute to work at the prisons – SCI-Greene in Waynesburg and SCI-Fayette in LaBelle.


Now, newly elected Washington County Commissioner Harlan Shober is covering Burns’ song: “It’s hard to put money into something when it’s not making money,” Shober said earlier this week.


The two counties pay an equal share toward the ferry’s nearly $200,000 operating cost. Washington County’s share is now estimated at between $12,000 and $15,000 per quarter. Last year, the two counties had to kick in a total of $73,000 for repairs to the boat.


The fee for moving a vehicle across the river is $2. At 90 cars a day, that comes out to only $56,160 a year. In order for the ferry to be self-supporting, the cost of crossing would need to rise to $7. How many drivers would be willing to pay that much for the convenience of a short cut?


As historic and quaint as the ferry may be, it has outlived its usefulness, like so many other institutions of transportation. Once, the National Road was the singular highway west, and travelers supported its maintenance by paying tolls. Then the railroads came, and the pike lost its importance. Interstate highways made it even less useful.


If the old, narrow-gauge “Waynie” were still operating between Waynesburg and Washington, the train would be a convenience to some and a great tourist attraction. But the fact is that the W&W Railroad died because it could not support itself, and neither taxpayers nor private benefactors were willing to subsidize it.


For the Frederick to keep operating, citizens from both counties must agree to pay more in the form of taxes to support the service. Either that, or private citizens must find the money to keep it running. Sad to say, the chances for either are not good.


Progress, we might say, is highly overrated.


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