6:14am

Thu May 8, 2014
Transportation

Erie Canal opens for 190th season, as commercial shipping returns

The Erie Canal and New York's smaller waterways are open for their 190th consecutive season connecting New York Harbor with the Great Lakes and other points west and north.

The 524 miles of waterways drove the rise of upstate New York's cities two centuries ago. Now, the canal is mostly a tourism and recreation path.

The Canal Corporation, which operates the canals and its locks, estimates the canals generate more than $380 million in economic benefits to the towns and villages along the waterway.

But last year, the canals saw a return in commercial uses. The tonnage of freight being transported by barge and tug on the canals doubled to 94,000 tons.

That's up from less than 10,000 tons about seven years prior.

"We still believe it’s a very viable and outstanding system," said Canal Corp. Director Brian Stratton.

But the canal still moves a fraction of what it did at it's height 75 years ago - about a half million tons.

"It’s never gotten up to its full capacity," Stratton said. "It has the capacity to move 10 million tons a year."

The Canal Corp. is part of the Thruway Authority, a public benefit corporation.

Stratton and other officials formally opened the canals for the season Wednesday at Lock 24 in Baldwinsville, one of the system's busiest.

Baldwinsville Mayor Richard Clark at Lock 24 of the Erie Canal.
Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO

"It’s exciting to think that we’ve become one of the most viable villages, probably in the state, because of the canal," said Baldwinsville Mayor Richard Clark.

"The restaurants that have opened up, the trails people can hike and bike. The fact that we do connect the state."

At nearly 200 years old, the canals and locks need a fair amount of upkeep and investment. The corporation spent about $100 million over the past three years to repair locks damaged by severe storms and floods.

The Canal Corp. has also been forced to go through some layoffs.

But Stratton contends the worth of the canals is about the money it brings to communities like Baldwinsville, not its profitability. 

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