After opening in 1825 the Erie Canal quickly became the country’s first superhighway, transporting people and goods, turning New York City into the country’s financial capital and bringing prosperity to communities, including Albany and Schenectady, all along its length. Those days are gone, and aren’t coming back. But there are signs of a mini-commercial boom on the canal system, which the state should both try to encourage and capitalize on.
The biggest reason for the drop-off in canal commercial traffic was the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, which gave shippers a direct route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. The New York State Thruway, which opened in the 1950s, also didn’t help. By the 1980s, annual shipments had dropped from the millions of tons to the tens of thousands, and have averaged just 11,000 tons over the last decade.
But things are starting to look up, thanks to a combination of fuel prices, new trucking regulations and environmental consciousness. Last year 43,000 tons were moved on the canal system.
And that number is expected to about triple in the coming year, with new types of cargo, such as Canadian corn and wheat, being shipped to New York, and soybeans being shipped back to Canada. This is in addition to the industrial turbines, boilers and other large manufactured goods already being moved by Rensselaer County-based New York State Marine Highway Transportation, one of the largest commercial shippers on the canal system, and should bring more traffic to the Port of Albany.
The state doesn’t stand to gain much direct revenue from this increased cargo, because, unlike the old days, it doesn’t charge by weight. All it collects is a $750 annual permit fee per boat. But there will be an economic impact in towns and cities along the canal as the shipments go through.
Eventually the state may be able to go back to a weighing system, or at least a higher permit fee, but for now it should do nothing to discourage this mini-commercial revival.