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Fredericktown Ferry's future on Monongahela River fading

| Wednesday, April 15, 2009

With a bridge carrying traffic over the Monongahela River between Washington and Fayette counties coming to fruition, the status of a century-old ferry is in question.

And two county commissioners — one from Washington, one from Fayette — find themselves not only on opposite sides of the river but on opposite sides of the debate on whether a proposed $1 million Fredericktown Ferry rehabilitation project should go forward.

Washington County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns does not believe enough passengers will use the ferry once the Mon-Fayette Expressway bridge is built. The bridge, part of the second phase of the Uniontown-to-Brownsville section of the toll road, is tentatively set to open in 2012.

But Fayette County Commissioner Vincent Vicites believes local residents and others will continue to use the ferry even when a bridge is built five miles away.

At the center of the debate is $950,000 in federal money meant to rehabilitate the ferry, the only cable-driven boat of its kind in operation east of the Mississippi River. It carries pedestrians and vehicles about 800 feet across the river between Fredericktown and LaBelle.

The ferry, which is owned and maintained by Fayette and Washington counties, received the federal money last year. A stipulation to receive the money required a 20 percent local match. Vicites said $100,000 has been pledged by the state with Greene County offering $25,000. That means Washington and Fayette counties would split the remaining $65,000 needed for a project that used every cent of the federal money.

But around the time the money was released, Burns started to wonder whether the bridge project, which had been discussed for decades but was now starting to take shape, would affect ferry traffic.

He asked the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission to study the issue. Burns was able to review a draft of the study, which is unavailable to the public because it is not yet complete.

"Frankly, until I read that report, I was thinking this was just something we need to have as part of our transportation system and was working to try to get money to refurbish the ferry and keep it viable," Burns said. "Once I read it, it leads me to believe the bulk of the people that are riding it right now are going to drive away from it in a hurry as soon as the bridge is opened."

A ferry has been in existence in Fredericktown for more than 200 years. Private owners operated the ferry for decades, until 1969 when decreased ridership led it to close. The counties joined forces to reopen the ferry in 1979.

Burns does not believe the ferry will be viable in the future.

"In the meantime, do you put a million out there in advance?" Burns said. "I don't think that's a good expenditure at this time."

Vicites believes the ferry, which carries about 130 people a day, will see a decrease in passenger load. But he believes it will still be worth operating.

Many of the ferry passengers work at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette in LaBelle.

"I do think a percentage of those people that use the ferry boat for the prison will still use it in spite of the bridge," Vicites said. "You still have to travel five miles down and five miles back and through a toll to use the bridge. I think the ferry boat will still be used — maybe not to the point it is now, but it will still be used."

Vicites said he's heard from local residents who want to see the ferry stay operational even after the bridge is finished. And, he added, some people would have to drive by Fredericktown to get to the bridge.

Vicites believes the counties should explore the rehabilitation project and might discover the full amount of money isn't needed.

"I think it would be a good decision to keep it going for the residents in that area, and the people that are geographically positioned to use it when traveling to the prison," he said. "Especially when the (rehabilitation) cost is covered."

The counties pay about $100,000 a year to operate the ferry. Some money comes from passenger fares, which recently were increased to $2 per car, while the rest is paid for with road improvement funds.

Carl Zellie, 47, a lifelong Fredericktown resident, said the ferry is needed by residents of both counties, who use it to quickly get from place to place to shop, go to the bank and socialize.

Zellie uses the ferry when his work takes him into Fayette County.

"I can be at my destination in five or 10 minutes rather than 30 or 40 minutes," he said. "I'd like for all the residents of both of these counties to rise up and speak their mind and see that this ferry does not close."

Burns said when the bridge opens he may be surprised to find ridership levels remain the same, but he doesn't believe they will.

And while there might always be people willing to ride the ferry, Burns isn't sure it should be kept open for a few.

"Somewhere along the line you have to say we've got to cut our losses with it," he said.

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