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Editorial: Don't put CT ferries on budget's chopping block

By Editorial Board
On November 17, 2010

The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury and Chester-Hadlyme ferries, two of Connecticut's historic sites, are on the state's cost-cutting chopping block. The Department of Transportation has included the attractions on a list of transportation services that may be cut to fill the state's $3.5 billion budget deficit. Such a decision would devastate local identity, harm the tourist industry, eliminate a practical means of saving gas for families and commuters and keep towns from receiving vital medical assistance during an emergency.

Both ferries are historic landmarks in their respective towns, inseparable from the towns' relationship with the river around which they were built. The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry is the oldest continually-operating ferry in America. It began operating in 1655 as a small raft, then upgraded to horsepower – literally. It was powered by a horse on a treadmill. In 1876, it entered the steam age before modernizing to the current flatboat barge. The Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, meanwhile, first ran in 1769 and served as a vital supply link to colonial troops during the American Revolution.

Furthermore, the ferries are essential to the state's tourism industry. The Chester-Hadlyme Ferry carries visitors to Gillette's Castle, Devil's Hopyard State Park and the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat. According to a 2003 DOT report, it carries 45,000 vehicles and 80,000 passengers annually. The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry is on the National Registrar of Historic Places and carries 22,000 vehicles and 40,000 passengers a year.

Some of its tens of thousands of yearly visitors, such as motorists and cyclists, use the ferries to save gas money and avoid the traffic congestion of bridges in East Haddam, Glastonbury and Portland. During the spring and summer, children and families come to the ferries to picnic, fly kites and enjoy the lazy trip across the river. In the autumn, the ferries provide magnificent views of the foliage.

The ferries provide an additional service during emergencies, such as natural disasters. Hadlyme First Selectman Ralph Eno reports that the ferries are part of an "emergency management plan for carrying ambulances when the bridges are out." Eno has joined Democratic State Rep. Antonio Guerrara, who co-chairs the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, in opposition to the plan.

There are alternatives to closing the ferries. Hours can be cut during the spring and fall, or rates can be raised during tourist season. If the state is still not satisfied, it can privatize. Private businesses have the resources needed to market the ferries and perhaps link operations with a river-side restaurant, bar or bed-and-breakfast. For the majority of its 350-year history, the Rocky Hill ferry was run by local families. Another solution is for local towns to join in partnership and run the ferry together. This way, towns can pool their funds and share the operating cost so that no one town bears the burden in a bad year.

Memories have been built around the ferries. As a result, they are not mere machines, but a permanent aspect of the cultural landscape. They have survived a revolution, two world wars, blizzards, hurricanes, floods and at least one economic depression. Today, they continue to provide necessary services to the townspeople as well as to the state. The Department of Transportation would be foolish to destroy these local treasures.


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