Passengers of Valley View Ferry angered by mayor's plan to cut funding

Loss of $40,000 a year from Lexington could affect its service

gkocher1@herald-leader.comApril 22, 2011 

VALLEY VIEW — The river was up, and so was Elizabeth Curry's dander.

As the Valley View Ferry shuttled Curry's car across the Kentucky River from Jessamine to Madison County, she vented over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's plan to cut funding for the ferry by $40,000.

Jessamine, Madison and Fayette counties have had an agreement to operate the paddle wheel ferry since 1991, and Curry said it isn't right for Fayette to cut its support.

"The three counties have an agreement, and when you have an agreement, you just don't back out," Curry said. "It throws the burden on the other two counties. You can't tell me that the city of Lexington or Fayette County can't manage $40,000."

The cut is part of Gray's plan to reduce a $27 million city deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The cuts will be considered by the Urban County Council.

"We're making serious cuts throughout our budget, including cuts in public safety as a last resort," Gray said. "The ferry is getting older and maintenance more expensive. Although there's a possible federal grant to replace the ferry, a significant local match is required. In this economy, those matching funds are out of reach for Lexington."

Gray urged the pursuit of alternative funding for the ferry and offered the city's help in identifying alternatives.

The ferry connects Tates Creek Road in Fayette and Jessamine counties with Ky. 169 in Madison County. Commuters depend on the ferry to shorten their travel time and save fuel, and the ferry is good for Fayette tourism, Curry said.

"And for one county to back out on it, that's wrong. That's just wrong," she said.

Curry's ire was shared by other commuters who rode the ferry on Thursday, the first day it was operational after high-water had shut it down for several days.

Gray's proposal might mean that the ferry would have to decrease its hours of operation. And the proposal has renewed discussion on whether the free ferry should charge tolls, as it did before state funding began in 1998.

Evie Agee, 25, lives in northern Madison County and uses the ferry on her commute to Bluegrass Community & Technical College on Cooper Drive in Lexington.

She takes some night classes, and if the ferry closed before 8 p.m., "I'd have to go the long way around," Agee said. The long way around would be Richmond Road to Interstate 75 and then south to Madison County.

Pat Courtney, a fence contractor who lives in Fayette County, uses the ferry to get from job site to job site.

"I take this way because it's a lot quicker than going all the way around through I-75," Courtney said. He said he probably wouldn't use the ferry if it charged $1 or $2, as it did before the 1998 state funding began.

The ferry carries more than 105,000 vehicles and more than 169,000 passengers a year, said George Dean, vice-chairman of the Valley View Ferry Authority, the governing body that administers it.

"When we charged, our ridership averaged about 150 cars a day," Dean said. "When we went to a free service, it almost doubled overnight. In the summer months, we average 380 cars a day. We've had some days where we carried over 500 cars."

Of the seven ferries that receive state funding, Valley View carried more vehicles in November 2010 than all but the Cave-in-Rock Ferry that shuttles vehicles across the Ohio River between Crittenden County and Illinois, according to figures supplied by the state Transportation Cabinet. November was selected because all seven ferries operated all days of that month, said Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Cabinet.

Wolfe said some ferries in the state charge tolls and some do not.

In addition to the $150,000 in annual funding from the state, Valley View also receives $20,000 in funding from Jessamine County and $25,000 from Madison County, said Roger Barger, chairman of the Valley View Ferry Authority.

Also, Jessamine and Madison each supplies a jail inmate to work as a deckhand on the vessel, Barger said. The ferry's operation is rotated among three full-time captains who must be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Charging tolls brings up problems other than a possible decrease in ridership, Barger said.

"You've got one captain down there. You're 11 miles from Richmond and 10 miles from Nicholasville," Barger said. The ferry closes at 8 p.m. each day, and so there is a security issue. "What kind of box are you going to have down there that somebody won't break into after the ferry closes?"

Fayette County provides $14,000 in general fund dollars plus $29,000 in in-kind services from the Fleet Services Division for maintenance of the John Craig, the paddle wheeler attached to the barge that carries vehicles. Dean and Barger both praised the mechanics.

"They've done a good job," Barger said. "There's nobody that can do it as good as they can."

Other ferry passengers said there are reasons beyond simple convenience and economics for the ferry to continue.

David Odor noted that a ferry has operated at Valley View since 1785, when John Craig was granted a franchise by the Virginia legislature. Patrick Henry, of "Give me liberty or give me death!" fame, signed the charter seven years before Kentucky gained statehood in 1792.

Odor, who at 74 has seen quite a bit of history, too, said he takes apart old barns and reuses the lumber. He said he rides the ferry about once a week, and it should stay open "for historical reasons, if nothing else."

The ferry appeared in the 1967 movie The Flim-Flam Man with George C. Scott.

But it wasn't history or Hollywood immortality that prompted Andee Duett of Richmond to bring her guest, Lindsay Welch of Starkville, Miss., to Valley View.

It was just the simple pleasure of riding the ferry for three minutes across to Jessamine County and then three minutes back to the Madison shore.

"This is one of the spots I wanted to bring her to," Duett said. "It's really unique and they need to keep it. I would definitely hate to see funding gone."

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service