The barge Lockwood 1000 left a large wake on the water Friday afternoon as it made its way slowly east through the Erie Canal.
Pushed by the tugboat Margot, the Lockwood and its $8.5 million cargo represented the final commercial shipment of the canal’s 183rd consecutive season.
The unofficial numbers available so far show that the historic 524-mile waterway saw a major decrease — about 22 percent — in recreational traffic in 2008.
But commercial shipping more than tripled over last year.
Sixteen shipments made their way through the 57-lock system in all of 2007; this year, there were 58 shipments by the end of October alone.
“It’s ironic. It’s turned into primarily a recreational waterway, but it was built for commercial traffic,” Canal Corp. Director Carmella R. Mantello said Friday.
Mantello said she’s often asked whether the massive barges can actually fit through the locks, and of course, that’s what the system was built for, she said.
One gallon of fuel moves a ton of cargo 59 miles in a truck, 202 miles on a train and 514 miles on a barge.
Aside from fuel efficiency, the canals are attractive for oversized cargo that is difficult to transport by rail or roadway.
“We’re saving shippers money,” said Rob Goldman, co-owner of the New York State Marine Highway Transportation Co., which coordinated the shipment of $8.5 million worth of generators and turbines removed from the former Nestle chocolate plant in Fulton.
The cargo, which is ultimately bound for Pakistan, could have been sent through the St. Lawrence Seaway, Goldman said, but using the canal helps avoid additional fees and a longer trip. The canal is a shortcut from the western part of the state to the Atlantic Ocean, Goldman said.
“It’s a more economically viable method of getting oversized, overweight cargo from East Coast ocean ports to the Great Lakes,” Goldman said.
Goldman said he’s aware of criticism the canal has faced in light of the state’s economic crisis and increased tolls on the Thruway, which fund the canal system, but he believes the growth in commercial shipping will help the canals flourish.
“The canal’s going to survive one way or another, and I think its viability as a commercial transportation waterway will help it survive,” Goldman said.
Despite the potential, Mantello said there is much work to be done before the canal system can be considered a major cargo transportation route.
Dredging the channel, a costly exercise that would require updated equipment and permitting by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is essential, Mantello said.
“That certainly has an impact on commercial shipping. Our dredging program has to be picked up a notch in order to attract commercial shipping,” Mantello said.
Without sufficient depth in the channel, tugs and barges could run aground, Mantello said.
The Canal Corp.’s “Report on the Future of the New York State Canals” makes several recommendations aimed at improving the prospect of securing the system’s place in the shipping of commercial goods:
* A commercial shipping task force, made up of representatives of the ports of New York/New Jersey, Albany, Oswego and Ogdensburg and other state agencies, could work toward introducing regular container-on-barge services along the canal.
* Businesses near the canal could be assessed as potential users.
* Graduated commercial shipping fees could be created. Currently, it costs $750 for a tug and barge operator to register their fleet for a year.
* Forming a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to seek additional federal assistance is another goal aimed at deriving more of an economic impact through the canal system.
“In the next three, four or five years, if we can continue on this path, there potentially could be more commercial shipping and traffic along the canal system, and I think others are beginning to recognize that,” Mantello said.
Though boats will end their journeys on the canal by 5 p.m. this evening, when the locks stop operating for the season, Mantello said she expects the parks and communities that surround the locks to be busy with activity throughout the winter.
The Canal Corp. has a winter calendar of events on its Web site, detailing a variety of functions taking place. The calendar can be found at www.nyscanals.gov/exvac/calendar/index.html.