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Debate over Erie Canal echoes its early history

Debate over Erie Canal echoes its early history

It was an engineering marvel that brought tremendous wealth to New York and opened up the North American interior, helping turn the United States into an international commercial powerhouse in the 19th century.
Today, managers of the storied Erie Canal are pouring tens of millions of dollars of public money into it each year as they struggle to transform the once vital freight route into a tourist destination.
The spending, and the state's decision to subsidize the canal with toll money collected from drivers on its main highway, has ignited debate about the canal's future _ a topic that repeatedly has been the subject of controversy through its 200-year history.
Advocates say the Erie _ and New York's three smaller canals _ are historical treasures that are essential to the state's economy and worthy of public investment.
Opponents counter that the canal system is no longer a critical part of the state's transportation network and the money would be better spent elsewhere, especially as the state faces crushing deficits in coming years.
"The canal is not going to be the panacea for New York, but it is part of the equation for the upstate economy," said Carmella Mantello, director of the New York State Canal Corp., the agency that manages the canal system.
Conceived in 1808 and completed in 1825, the Erie Canal linked the waters of the Great Lakes in the west to the Hudson River in the east. It created the first cost-efficient route from the nation's interior to the Atlantic Ocean and opened overseas markets to Midwest resources and farm products.
New York City soon became one of the country's busiest ports and the canal spurred development of major upstate cities including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, whose proximity attracted industry. Dozens of smaller industrial hubs also sprouted along its banks.
There were two major upgrades _ one completed in 1862 and the other in 1918 _ to accommodate heavier traffic and larger vessels. But the rise of the railroads in late 1800s and the advent of the interstate highway system in the 1950s plucked the vast majority of freight off the canal.
In 1949, 3.9 million tons of freight plied the waters of New York's canals. Last year, it was just over 13,000 tons, according to Canal Corp. figures.
For more than 10 years, state officials have been trying to reinvent the canal, marketing it as a tourist attraction and keeping its locks _ most of which still use equipment installed in the early 1900s _ operating.
The aim is to lure pleasure boaters to spend their money in the communities along the canal, many of which have suffered a decades-long economic slump following the decline of the region's once thriving manufacturing industry.
Mantello says the canal agency has spent $250 million to help those communities fix up waterfront amenities.
Herb Spiegel, who has used the Erie Canal on trips between his home in Ontario, Canada, and Florida eight times in the past 18 years, says the improvements are part of what keeps him coming back.
"On our first trip in 1990, the locks were strictly commercial and it was really rough," Spiegel said as he prepped for the trip west through the canal at Waterford.
"Some people would buy big bales of hay and tie them to the side of their boats to keep the boat from being swallowed up by the big holes in the canal wall," he said. "But it has improved considerably. Now there are barbecues, picnic tables, there's tie ups. I can't believe how beautiful it is."
But state records show that new boaters have been slow in coming. Last year, officials recorded a total of 123,358 recreational lockings _ or trips through a lock _ on the state's canals. That's down 13 percent from a peak of 141,929 in 1998.
The decline appears to be even more precipitous this year. There were 48,854 recreational lockings through the end of July, down 26 percent from 66,446 during the same period in 2007.
A sluggish economy and higher fuel prices have put a damper on recreational boating nationwide, which Mantello says is part of the reason for the decreased canal traffic. But she insists that public investment in the canal is paying off by attracting more visitors who don't arrive by boat, as well as making it a nicer place for New Yorkers to enjoy.
Mantello points out that there were roughly 200 festivals and other events planned on canal shores this year, compared with about 30 just three years ago.
She and other canal boosters point to a study that found canal tourism contributed about $380 million a year to the state's economy in 2002 _ a little more than 1 percent of the total $34.4 billion the Travel Industry Association of America estimates travelers spent in New York that year. An update of that study is scheduled to be done this year.
The canals cost about $80 million a year to operate but take in only about $3 million from users. The rest comes from tolls collected from drivers on the New York State Thruway.
The state Legislature in 1992 gave the Thruway Authority, which is funded primarily with toll money, responsibility to operate and maintain the canals, an arrangement that came into question recently when Thruway managers blamed canal costs for a sharp toll hike.
"We all know the history and significance of (the Erie Canal) but it's really no longer a transportation facility," said David Hartgen, who spent 23 years working for New York's Department of Transportation and recently retired as a professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina.
"New York's port is no longer dependent on the river system at all and you can only really justify public investment going forward, not because something has a history," he said. "Why should the people of New York subsidize yacht owners?"
That's a question asked more often lately, after state Thruway officials raised tolls on the 641-mile (1,032-kilometer) superhighway, much of which runs parallel to the canal route.
Canal managers waived fees for recreational boaters on the canals the past two years. They reinstated them this year. Still, they're nominal compared with what drivers pay.
For instance, a 10-day pass for vessels between 26 and 39 feet (8 to 12 meters) long costs $37.50, while an 18-wheeler pays $59.10 to make one trip along the canal route from Albany to Buffalo.
"Obviously it's important to the state for tourism, and we don't want to see anything happen to the canal," said Kendra Adams, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association. "But we don't think it should be maintained with money from Thruway tolls."
For its part, the state Legislature hasn't decided which course to take.
Today's conflicts over cost and necessity of the Erie Canal are nothing new.
When the waterway was first proposed, many thought New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton was foolish for pursuing the idea _ they derided it as "Clinton's ditch," said Tom Grasso, a canal historian and president of the Canal Society of New York State. A loud chorus of opposition that rose up to an expensive expansion in the late 1800s almost led the state to abandon it altogether.
"The naysayers have never been right in their predictions," Grasso said. "They just couldn't see its tremendous economic potential."


Updated : 2021-10-22 05:15 GMT+08:00