SCRANTON (AP) -- Twenty-two years after Steamtown National Historic Site became part of the National Park Service, the site devoted to telling and interpreting the story of steam railroading in America finds itself beset by troubles.
The site's annual visitation has plummeted below 100,000 for three straight years, down from more than 200,000 in the 1990s.
Restoration of locomotives and other equipment has been stalled amid budget woes. There are new calls for at least partial privatization of Steamtown's operation.
"What has happened there is a disaster," said steam enthusiast Donald L. Pevsner, a transportation lawyer and consumer advocate who says taxpayers are not receiving their money's worth for the estimated $176 million that has been put into Steamtown since 1986. "I look at that (dollar figure)," Pevsner said, "and I want to weep."
Steamtown superintendent Harold H. "Kip" Hagen Jr. said critics usually don't have all the facts.
"We are not perfect, certainly," said Hagen, a Scranton native who has been in charge of Steamtown since 2002. "But at least hear our side and at least look at the attempts we are making."
Hagen said he'd like to see some of the improvements at Steamtown that Pevsner wants, including more aggressive restoration of the locomotives and rolling stock and a beefier excursion schedule.
Steamtown's annual operating budget of $5.2 million is used to keep the site running, paying for everything from coal for the locomotives to supplies for the restrooms to routine maintenance of equipment and facilities.
The historic site is in line to receive $1.5 million in 2011 to remove asbestos from seven or eight locomotives and about the same number of passenger cars, a necessary first step toward their restoration, Hagen said.
With the park service's 100th anniversary in 2016, the site also has identified five projects -- focused mostly on the restoration of locomotives and rolling stock -- that it wants to do as part of the agency's Centennial Initiative. The park service will provide 50 percent of the funding for each project only if the site secures a match from a nonfederal source.
But detractors point to visitation trends as evidence Steamtown is headed in the wrong direction.
After peaking at nearly 212,000 in 1995, the year of the site's grand opening, visitation has been in steady decline. The number of visitors bottomed out at 61,178 in 2006 before a slight rebound to 70,726 last year.
Ross E. Rowland Jr., a Sacketts Harbor, N.Y., resident who has been involved in several steam-powered rail endeavors since the 1960s, is a longtime advocate of privatizing Steamtown.
With what Steamtown has to offer for both the serious rail fan and the casual tourist, he predicted visitation would easily grow to 250,000 annually if one of any number of proven commercial steam-powered tourist railroad operators were brought in to run the historic site.
"Allow this beautiful facility to fulfill its destiny," Rowland said. "If it remains under the aegis of the National Park Service, attendance will continue to dwindle and dwindle and dwindle. That's a choice the community needs to make."