Target 11 investigates: Historic ferry – is this why we're broke?

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Pa. —

The Fredericktown ferry is one of the last cable-driven ferries in the country. It has been carrying cars and people across the Monongahela River between Fredericktown, Washington County, and Labelle, Fayette County for decades.

But it's been losing money for years and Target 11 discovered it's about to get a million-dollar upgrade paid for with tax payer dollars.

Is it worth it or is it a waste of money?

Target 11 spoke to people on both sides of this issue.

"When they say we're operating in the black, we aren't. We are in dark maroon," said Fayette County Commissioner Vince Zapotosky.

During the past three years, the cost to operate the ferry has tripled.

A private company operated the ferry until 1969 when rising costs and declining riders forced it to close. A decade later it reopened as a joint partnership paid for by Fayette and Washington counties.

Even after the fares are deducted, the counties are still on the hook. In 2010, tax payers fronted $58,000 for the ferry, in 2011 -- $89,000 and in 2012 -- $196,000.
Target 11 investigator Rick Earle questioned why the costs have tripled in three years.

"Again you have factors that come into play, or course repairs and employment cost have gone up," said Zapotosky.

The ferry is now in desperate need of a major overhaul. The counties have received a million-dollar federal grant -- more tax dollars -- to pay for the upgrades. Each county also has to chip in $100,000 in tax dollars to get the grant.

"If you're operating at a loss and you subsidize that loss, you get more of a loss," said Jay Ostrich of the Commonwealth Foundation.

"90 people a day use the ferry. Some might say it's a waste of their tax dollars," Earle said during his interview with Zapotosky.

"They have a very good point," said Zapotosky, who pointed out that Fayette County uses liquid fuel funds from the state to cover some of the cost of the ferry. Zapotosky said that is money that is typically used for repairing roads and bridges.

Now that there's another option over the river, critics say the ferry has run its course. A brand new $110 million taxpayer-funded bridge opened four miles down the river.

Most of the people we found riding the ferry work at the nearby state correctional institution in Labelle, Fayette County or SCI Greene. They told Earle the new bridge is too far out of the way.

"That's like nine miles difference. The ferry saves us about a half hour or 45 minutes," said John Keller, who said if the weather is bad the bridge route takes even longer.

"It's an extreme convenience and it's historic. It's so historic I don't want to see it go," said Betty, who works at the state prison.

Earle asked one rider if it's tax money well spent.

"I think a lot of people that use it would think so. Yes, it's definitely worth it," said Jerry Dillinger.

"The Fredericktown ferry boat has been an historical part of that region but I'm a firm believer that history is made each day and we have to look at the best decision for taxpayers. Over the next couple of years, it's imperative as the cost continue to rise that we focus on this. I don't look at this as a tough decision. I look at this as a decision as to what's in the best interest overall. I know people get used to something, but change is sometimes embraced reluctantly, but inevitable it is embraced," said Zapotosky.

Target 11 asked Washington County about the ferry and director of administration Scott Fergus sent Earle this statement.

"Washington County continues to commit $100,000 as a joint match with Fayette County for the rehabilitation of the Fredericktown Ferry. The ferry is not only of historic importance to the area but also serves citizens of Washington, Fayette, and Greene as transportation across the Monongahela River and it is Washington County's goal that all three counties recognize the value of the ferry and work to keep if financially viable, "Fergus said.

Earle asked Zapotosky about the possibility of raising rates to bring in more revenue. But Zapotosky said there was a fare increase several years ago and he said another one would chase riders away.