You don’t see anyone pining away for the preservation of old telegraph lines.
About the only time you see a horse and buggy is in Amish country or plodding tourists and honeymooners around a park.
And in Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester and other New York cities, cars and trucks now traverse the same space where barges once plied the Erie Canal.
Preserving a part of our state’s great industrial past might have nostalgic and historic value, but the needs of the present should be given top priority when it comes to the allocation of limited taxpayer dollars.
With that in mind, it’s time for state officials to reevaluate the state’s annual investment in its canal system and either develop a viable plan to make it profitable or consider significantly reducing the state’s role in maintaining it.
Trucks and trains are how America transports most of its goods from place to place these days. Commercial traffic on the 524-mile canal system is one-tenth of what it was just three years ago.
And while coasting through the canals is a cool way to spend time on a cabin cruiser or canoe, the fees paid by boaters come nowhere close to offsetting the expenses. And anyway, there are plenty of other waterways in the state to get your float on.
And the canal system is only usable from May to mid-November, about the same amount of time you use your backyard bug-zapper.
The canal’s current budget is about $87 million. Construction costs will add another $220 million over the next four years. And the system is deeply in debt.
Sure, the system might still have some value for recreational boating, commercial traffic, economic development, power generation and flood control. But how long can taxpayers be expected to support an outdated transportation mode that can’t pay for itself?
Shifting its multi-million-dollar annual financial burden from the Thruway Authority, where motorists’ tolls helped support it, to the New York Power Authority, where your energy dollars will help fund it, is really just a shell game to free up money for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement and to help maintain reasonable toll prices on the interstate. It’s not a long-term solution.
Our current governor, Andrew Cuomo, as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, did try to help. He used his authority to dedicate $237 million in federal housing funds to a Canal Corridor Initiative that was supposed to spur economic development along the state’s canal system. But tangible proof of its success two decades later is difficult to substantiate.
If that kind of money won’t help, what kind of money will it take?
Was it the plan that was flawed or was any plan to repurpose the aging water highway doomed to failure?
Canals are nice. They’re pretty. And they’re historic. And New York’s canal system — a marvel of engineering and construction prowess when it was built nearly 200 years ago — has served New York well.
But it’s not serving New York well now.
Unless someone can come up with a legitimate plan to change its fortunes, it might soon be time to consider a plan doing without it.