How Much to Pay to Preserve Past?
Washington PA Observer Reporter
21 February 2013
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 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
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.