Saratoga County

Canal system open for business, pleasure

From stem to stern, the New York State Canal System is now officially open for business, and for Ric
State Canal Corp. workers install flashboards to the top of Lock 7 in Niskayuna on Wednesday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
State Canal Corp. workers install flashboards to the top of Lock 7 in Niskayuna on Wednesday.

From stem to stern, the New York State Canal System is now officially open for business, and for Richard Powell it couldn’t have come soon enough.

The 2008 season kicked off at 7 this morning throughout the 524-mile canal system.

Powell owns the Waterford-based Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Co. His four-boat fleet hosts a number of educational and fine-dining cruises and tours throughout the season.

“The canal is just an absolutely beautiful place,” Powell said. “It means everything to me, not only as a business person, but as a New Yorker, as an American.”

Powell and other pleasure boaters make up the majority of canal traffic.

However, officials expect commercial freight traffic to pick up this year in the wake of high fuel prices and the push for environmentally friendly transit.

“We have positive prospects on commercial shipping,” said Canal Corp. Executive Director Carmella Mantello.

According to Mantello, one barge can hold the same cargo as 60 tractor-trailers, although shipping by boat is far slower than shipping by truck.

Officials expect pleasure traffic this year to be similar to last year. Mantello said boaters will see improved landscaping and public services along the canal system this year.

Throughout the season, workers will break ground on a number of projects that are starting, thanks to a set of state grants announced in 2006.

“To get these projects to break ground is a very big accomplishment, considering the red tape the projects have to go through,” Mantello said. “We’ve really made it a major, major priority of ours to be more customer-satisfaction oriented.”

Over the course of the boating season, workers will replace trees and other landscape damaged during the 2006 flooding, replace and refurbish docks and add public bathrooms with potable water along the system.

Boaters will also see more visible speed and navigation signs.

“We heard loud and clear through customer satisfaction surveys a year and a half ago that folks wanted to see better signage in terms of waterway navigability,” Mantello said.

This season will mark the return of recreational tolls for the first time since 2005.

Recreational boats under 16 feet long will pay $25 for a season pass, $12.50 for a 10-day pass or $5 for a two-day pass. Larger vessels will pay higher rates.

Tugboats and barges pay an annual fee of $750. Companies that operate commercial cruise and tour ships pay $300 annually for each boat in their fleet.

Mantello said the recreational boat tolls are expected to generate about $200,000 in revenue this year. Commercial permits will generate about $100,000.

The majority of the estimated $3 million collected by the Canal Corp. this year will come from dock permits, land leases and land sales.

Mantello said the Canal Corp. owns about 14,000 acres of property that it doesn’t use for active operations and maintenance. That land will eventually be transferred to state parks or put up for sale.

About $80 million is spent by the Thruway Authority every year to operate the Canal Corp.

“The tolls are minimal,” Mantello said. “I think folks recognize that it’s hard in this day and age to really get something for free.”

A plan announced earlier this year to reduce the peak operating hours of the canal system drew pubic outrage during a series of public hearings.

The initial plan called for peak hours of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in an effort to save almost $1 million for the state Thruway Authority, of which the Canal Corp. is part.

But, the Canal Corp. reversed course on that announcement last month, and the system will now be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for most of the season.

“It was really the hours that upset so many people and really would have killed the upstate economy in terms of business and tourism,” Mantello said.

Powell’s cruise ships launch from the Port of Waterford, which is also the town’s visitor center. His fleet uses the canal system from May until the end of October.

“There’s so few people that know about [the canal system], so I’m really excited to take people on a tour and just show it to them,” he said. “You’re looking at the history of America.”

The canal system will be open from 7 a.m to 5 p.m. starting today until May 22.

From May 23 to Sept. 3, the system will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Hours will again be 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Sept. 4 to Nov. 15.

Categories: Schenectady County

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