The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, proved that sometimes the government can do what the private sector is unwilling to do: Create and run a highly successful business.
However, the canal’s descendant, the New York State Canal System, is no longer profitable. In fact, it is heavily subsidized by Thruway tolls, as cited in a recent lawsuit by the American Trucking Association against the New York Thruway Authority, which operates the canal system.
Truckers aren’t the only people upset with the canal system. At a recent meeting in the Town of Florida, a Fort Hunter resident blamed the canal system for the flooding in his village. He called for the removal of the dams and locks on the Mohawk River section of the canal, saying that if it were not for them, the river would not have flooded during the past few years.
As I pointed out to him, however, long before the Mohawk River was canalized in 1917, it flooded many times, destroying bridges and causing severe damage to villages along its banks. While lifting the dams at the appropriate time prior to heavy storms may mitigate flooding, it doesn’t guarantee there won’t be any. Even with the dams out of the way, if we receive enough rain, the river basin will fill up and overflow.
Many people feel the canal’s days are over — that it is a subsidized playground for the wealthy and their yachts. While I agree that that is true to a certain extent, the canal is much more than that. Neither are its days over. Not only should it be maintained, every effort should be made to increase traffic on it, particularly commercial traffic.
But even without increased commercial traffic, there are many reasons we should continue to support, even subsidize, the canal. When we note its benefits, we cannot consider it in isolation. A large percentage of upstate New York’s population lives in villages and cities along the canal. These cities have gone through industrial decline and now many are making efforts to revitalize. Almost all these efforts involve waterfront development. They are also connected to the Canalway Trail, which has been a success. Based on sample trail counts, Parks & Trails New York conservatively estimates that 1.8 million people use the trail every year. And while the canal is closed in winter, many parts of the trail are still open to snowmobilers.
It is hard to imagine the Canalway Trail without the canal. It just would not have the same appeal, and looking only at the revenues from boats using the canal does not adequately explain its value.
Those using the Canalway Trail and visiting the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor spend money in the many villages they pass through. A Heritage Corridor study states that $38 million was spent by tourists in the Rome to Albany corridor in 2008.
Allure of history
Furthermore, the canal is a draw for tourists who love history. It is one thing to go to a museum about the Erie Canal; it is another thing to see it in operation, with parts of it dating back almost 200 years.
We must also consider the number of local boaters, canoers, kayakers and fishermen who use the canal. If the dams were removed from the Mohawk River section, it would be virtually unusable during dry weather. The same river that floods after heavy rains becomes a narrow, shallow creek during dry times.
The potential for the canal system to make more money is great. The Mohawk River section already produces 90.2 megawatts of hydroelectric power. If the proposed Middle Mohawk Hydroelectric Project is ever completed, it will produce another 50.8 megawatts and will utilize the dams from Lock E-8 in Glenville through E-15 in Fort Plain.
Return of barges
Equally important is a 2010 study done by Goodban Belt for the state Department of Transportation and Energy Research and Development Authority and based on extensive research on the canal itself, the port of NY/NJ and similar sized canals in Europe and China. The report makes an overwhelming case for barges returning to the canal.
Containerization has made the canal viable again. It is capable of handling barges carrying up to 140 containers. The use of barges is less expensive than using trucks, would cut down on air pollution and make our highways safer and less congested. If Europe and China are profitably using their canals for commercial shipping, without any negative impact on recreational use, then why can’t we?
We need to invest more in the canal, not less, if we don’t want to subsidize it. The only thing stopping us from utilizing the canal to its fullest seems to me to be negativity, and for those readers who started saying nah while reading the first paragraph of this piece, I would suggest reading the full report by Goodban Belt at www.canals.ny.gov/business/modern-freightway.pdf.
The Erie Canal was called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Today’s canal system is still one of New York State’s major assets — a jewel that with a little polishing could shine as brightly as it did long ago.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.