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Bond bill could help fix Big Slackwater

February 08, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - The C&O Canal National Historical Park might get state money to help fix its only broken link - a 2.7-mile impassable gap south of Williamsport.

Washington County's delegation to the General Assembly voted unanimously to seek a $200,000 bond bill to pay for enough engineering work to figure out a solution.

The park would contribute another $140,000 and has three other sources committed to give $60,000.

The total of public and private money would be $400,000.

The national park's 184.5 miles run from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C. The park winds through Washington County and parts of West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.

Fixing the break at Big Slackwater would bring an estimated 58,000 more people and $1.8 million in tourism revenue to the county, according to Thomas B. Riford, the president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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Last year, about 700,000 people used the park in Washington County, said Riford, who attended Wednesday's delegation meeting.

The Convention & Visitors Bureau and Washington County would contribute $15,000 to the study. The nonprofit C&O Canal Association also would give $15,000.

A National Park Service grant would provide $30,000.

Flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 demolished the towpath above Dam 4, Bill Justice, the park's chief of resource management and interpretation, has said.

The National Park Service repaired and reopened the park at Big Slackwater in 1995, but it was flooded again and was shut down, Justice has said.

Kevin Brandt, the park's superintendent, told the delegation Wednesday that fixing the park at Big Slackwater has been estimated to cost $15.5 million, but he thinks that's an outdated figure and expects it will cost less.

The $400,000, anchored by the bond bill, would pay for enough engineering work to figure out what needs to be done and how much it will cost, Brandt said.

Last summer, canal enthusiasts invited public officials and the media on a tour of the area to publicize the problem.

Safety is a big concern. A detour of five to six miles has stretches with no shoulders. More than 30 people have been injured and taken to the hospital in incidents connected to the detour, Brandt said.

Riford stressed the economic impact. As an example, he said a group of 500 bicyclists riding from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh will bypass Washington County because of the gap at Big Slackwater.

When Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, wondered why the federal government wasn't paying for the engineering study, Brandt said a lot of parks projects compete for limited money.

Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., R-Frederick/Washington, was more blunt. "The National Park Service has been the budgetary whipping boy," always the first to face cuts, he said.

Joint private and public funding efforts like this one are needed, he said.

"I think this partnership is the only way we're going to move forward," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

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