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Boaters get easier access to local waterways just in time for holiday

| Thursday, May 24, 2007

As Memorial Day approaches, boaters on Pittsburgh's three rivers will find some of the region's public launch sites new and improved, with others set for upgrades.

Communities from Sewickley to Monessen are catching state Fish and Boat Commission grants to improve the improvised launches that have served the region for decades. Funds for the grants come from boat registration fees.

"The Chestnut Street site wasn't really the nicest thing," said Kevin Flannery, Sewickley borough manager, of one of the two public sites along the Ohio River the borough is upgrading. "People who used it had built it up themselves over the last 40 or 50 years. Twelve years ago, when the river went down very low, we found a car down there."

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the commission, $200,000 from the state Department of Community and Natural Resources and $50,000 in local funds, a new concrete launch, as well as a vehicle turnaround area, are open, Flannery said. The money paid for new gangways, courtesy docks and a kayak tie-up, and launch site on nearby Walnut Street.

"We do get people (who) kayak on the Ohio, come up and have lunch in town," Flannery said. "Very clearly, access to the rivers is an important way to enhance our quality of life."

Despite more than 30 miles of navigable waterways, the Pittsburgh area has only a handful of public launch sites for motorized boats and the extended parking spaces needed to stow a vehicle and trailer. Dan Tredinnick, spokesman for the Fish and Boat Commission, listed sites in Sewickley, Sharpsburg and Monessen, as well as Kilbuck, Braddock, Glassport, McKeesport, Sunnyside, Elizabeth and Leetsdale

Within city limits, the only launch site free to the public is just west of the Birmingham Bridge in the South Side. The city completed about $200,000 in upgrades to the 25-year-old ramp in 2006, city Environmental Planner Dan Sentz said.

"The biggest problem with creating a new launching area is you need significant parking areas to support that," Sentz said. "You don't like to commit prime riverfront land to parking lots that are not used on a regular basis."

Prior to last year's upgrade, boaters would park their vehicles and boat trailers along South Side streets, to the ire of local residents. Sentz said the city would welcome assistance from Allegheny County in maintaining or expanding facilities, because 60 percent of the boaters using the city launch live outside Pittsburgh.

Further down the Monongahela, Monessen is seeking bids for builders to extend the Herman Mihalich Boat Launch with a $125,000 Fish and Boat Commission grant. It's tapping into Community Development Block Grants to build fishing docks accessible to people with disabilities and install a pavilion, lighting and restrooms, City Councilwoman Mary Jo Smith said. Completion is anticipated for summer 2008.

While not a personal fan of water recreation, Smith said the small Westmoreland County community always is seeking ways to obtain grant money for community improvement.

"It's cheap recreation for people who can't afford to do a lot. They can fish or have a picnic," Smith said. "And maybe it will bring boaters into Monessen."

On the Allegheny, Sharpsburg's new 13th Street boat launch is ready for use, with a half-dozen parking spaces to be ready by mid-summer, borough Secretary Ronald Borczyk said. The borough acquired the dilapidated, privately run launch in 2005, with a promise to keep it public for 25 years.

Pennsylvania Job Corps workers have labored to buttress the once-eroded shoreline, and about 30 parking spaces will be prepared by 2008.

"You could guide in smaller fishing boats, but the concrete was in such bad shape that you really were taking a severe risk by trying to put a vehicle and boat down there," Borczyk said of the ramp before the upgrade. "Now, pleasure boats very easily could be launched. The shape of that ramp is better than most of our streets, and nicer than most private boat launches."

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