Washington Co. commissioners take wait-and-see approach to Fredericktown ferry

May 15, 2013
Operator Ron Columbia moves the Fredericktown ferry across the Monongahela River to pick up a vehicle. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Fayette County may be poised to end its participation later this year in what has been a joint venture with Washington to provide the Fredericktown ferry service, but a Washington County official said he hasn’t officially heard.

Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said Wednesday he has had no written communication from his counterpart in Fayette County about the fate of the cable-guided ferry known as “The Frederick.”

“We’ll wait and see what they do and we’ll make our decision after that,” Maggi said following the Washington County commissioners agenda meeting. The Washington County commissioners meet at 10 a.m. today and next on June 6.

“They run that through the Fayette County planning department. We pay a small portion through liquid fuels money,” Maggi said. Fayette County, for example, pays the ferry operator who crosses the river between Fredericktown, Washington County, a former coal town, and LaBelle, Fayette County, home to a state prison.

Maggi said he has taken both a motorcycle and a car across the Monongahela River and he has attended the Fredericktown festival that spotlights the river-crossing service. The event had to be postponed twice last summer because the ferry was in dry dock due to a regularly scheduled Coast Guard inspection and related maintenance.

Vince Zapotosky, vice chairman of Fayette County commissioners, said Tuesday that he called Maggi two weeks ago and asked him to discuss the matter with his colleagues. Fayette’s role in the operation could end as soon as Labor Day weekend.

“We’re leaving ample time for any entity that wants to take the ferry over. That’s one option,” Zapotosky said Wednesday.

Since the opening of the Bakewell Bridge as part of the Mon-Fayette Expressway in July, ridership has plummeted to 90 trips from 247 per day, according to a survey the Fayette County buildings and grounds department conducted recently. The fee per car is $2.

“Even at 247, we were still losing money,” Zapotosky said. “If somebody that has a better solution to operating the ferry, bring it to the table. We’re not abandoning the ferry. Washington and Greene may still want to do it. That’s up to them.”

The service experienced a $199,479 operating loss last year, and has lost $36,479 so far this year, according to figures provided by the Fayette County controller’s office. Losses have totaled $450,691 since 2009.

“It’s just at the point, how long do you let it be a financial liability?” Zapotosky asked. “The Mon Valley is near and dear to me but this is one of those programs that maybe it’s going by the wayside. The ferry boat can remain operational. Somebody else just has to pick up the costs.

“They struggled a couple of years ago to find qualified (operators). Not a lot of people are learning ferry boat training. It’s not something that they’re teaching in school.”

A ferry has operated on that stretch of the Monongahela River since the late 18th century.

One proposal calls for the boat to become part of a museum on the Fredericktown side of the river.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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