Canal barge traffic seen on the rise

For Rob Goldman, the Erie Canal is hardly a transportation relic.

For Rob Goldman, the Erie Canal is hardly a transportation relic.

The captain and owner of the Rensselaer County-based New York State Marine Highway Transportation Company regularly moves tens of thousands of tons along New York’s first superhighway. And he does it at a fraction of the cost the move would take by land.

Just one of his barges can haul 1,500 tons of grain down the 365-mile expanse of the Erie Canal between Buffalo and Albany. That amount of grain would take roughly 50 trucks to move by land.

“This is the most efficient way to move bulk material,” he said.

Goldman’s company moved the majority of the 43,000 tons of commercial material that traveled the canal system in 2012. And with a couple new contracts on hand this year, he’s planning to triple the amount.

This year, the company will be bringing corn from Canada to an ethanol plant in Fulton. Additionally, Goldman will use the canal to bring Canadian wheat from Oswego to a company on the Hudson River in Albany.

“If this works out, we’ll have regular service between Albany and the Port of Oswego,” he said.

The added traffic from Goldman’s company and others utilizing the canal for hauling is expected to mean a banner year for the canal during its 189th navigational season, which officially opened Wednesday. Canal Corporation Executive Director Brian Stratton anticipates the canal could see upward of 150,000 tons of material shipped on its waters — the most since the early 1990s.

“We’re going to have a tremendous upswing in commercial cargo,” he said.

He’s talking about an upswing that will dwarf the numbers the canal has seen in recent years. Prior to last year — the largest amount of commercial tonnage along the Erie Canal since 1998 — the canal was averaging between 8,000 tons and 12,000 tons of cargo.

Of course, the uptick is all relative. The canal once saw millions of tons of cargo move annually before the St. Lawrence Seaway opened a direct route between the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean during the 1950s.

Still, the projected increase of commercial traffic is a welcome change for the canal system, which is sometimes criticized for being a piece of a bygone era in New York’s transportation history. Stratton is hopeful the increased commercial traffic predicted for the 2013 navigation season is sustained and brings even more use into the system.

“It’s great to see these huge barges filling up these locks,” he said. “And it works just as well as when it opened in 1918.”

The canal also brings the state revenue from its boat traffic, Stratton said. Canal tolls brought in $225,778 and permit fees garnered $3.1 million last year.

Much of the canal’s traffic remains recreational. There were a total of 52,707 recreational vessels that passed through the locks and draw bridges on the Erie Canal last year, not including an additional 5,547 tour boats and 4,814 rented recreational boats.

Canal Corporation officials estimate that the communities along the Erie Canal gained about $380 million in economic benefit from the canal’s operation. Stratton said the increase in commercial traffic will only help bolster this figure.

“You’re going to see a lot more traffic largely driven by the commercial area,” he said. “That means more economic impact as they travel through.”

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