Unpoled citizens: Closure call surprises Hatton Ferry fans
Would the state really close the famous hand-poled Hatton Ferry? Plying the James River at a site near Scottsville, it's a one-of-kind piece of mobile history that has been operating, according to its website, since the 1870s.
But to save a $21,000 per year, the Virginia Department of Transportation will close it July 1, according to VDOT spokesperson Lou Hatter. Commissioner David S. Ekern delivered the news earlier this week among a long statewide list of cost cuts.
"We're going to do everything we can to try to get them to reconsider," says Steven Meeks, the chair of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, a group that serves as clearinghouse for ferry information. Meeks calls the $21,000 figure misleadingly high because it's an annual budget.
Meeks says that high and low water renders the passage unsafe for operations and usually causes the actual cost to fall far below budget–- only around $6,700 last year. And already this spring, he says, operations were curtailed from three to two days a week, cutting costs by a third.
"So in the end, they're not saving a lot of money," says Meeks, who also notes that, contrary to oft-repeated claims that this is one of only two hand-poled ferries in America, this is the one and only.
The person who actually does the poling, Ashley Pillar, says he is urging officials to spare the ferry. He says he's contacting everyone from Albemarle Supervisors and state legislators to freshman Congressman Tom Perriello– and even the governor.
Pillar, who has been poling the boat since 2002, calls the cost savings tiny in proportion to the state transportation budget which exceeds $3.4 billion. "Just a grain of sand on a beach" is how he put it in a letter to Governor Tim Kaine.
The savings for killing the ferry would constitute two ten-thousandths of the budget cuts and three one-millionths of the total VDOT budget. Pillar notes that the state spent $35,000 earlier this year for the ferry's first painting and repairs. So pulling it out of service just a few weeks later, he says, makes no business sense.
Pillar says that now that the boat–- which was placed in service in 1986 after a catastrophic flood–- shouldn't require any maintenance beyond merely greasing cables and winches.
There were once 140 ferries along the James River, according to one mid-19th century survey that Pillar cites. He calls Virginia's sole surviving human-powered ferry a fun and interesting field trip for area school-children and other citizens who want to learn about "eco-friendly transportation from a bygone era."
Like the Historical Society, Pillar says he was caught completely off guard by the announcement. VDOT's Hatter, however, says that there was a public hearing in Culpeper in March on planned VDOT cuts so citizens could voice their opinions on which ferries, rest stops, and other projects should be saved.
In the ensuing proposal, VDOT decided it could save over $17 million simply by mowing median grass less frequently and reduce the total number of rest areas it operates from 42 to 23, part of a savings package totaling over $44 million.
Meeks says his group didn't receive any notice that the tiny Hatton Ferry was targeted among the cuts.
"What's so frustrating is that we didn't know anything about it," says Meeks. "There was no forewarning– no nothing."
There's a glimmer of hope for Hatton, as the reductions must be approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which next meets in Richmond on June 17 and 18.
–last updated 9:28am, Monday, May 25