Canals Close '08 With Big Drop in Traffic

Budget trimmed by $10 million due to operational decline

New York's canal system is closing for the winter Saturday following a season that saw a sharp decline in traffic.

So far this year, recreational, commercial and tour vessels have passed through canal locks 113,368 times. That's down 21.7 percent from 144,743 "lockings" last year, according to the state Canal Corp., which runs the Erie, Champlain, the Oswego and the Cayuga-Seneca canals.

Canal managers attribute the overall decline mostly to fewer recreational boaters, who make up the bulk of canal users. At the same time, they say the number of commercial shipments rose to 58, from just 17 last year.

"That was a silver lining this year," state canal director Carmella Mantello said.

The commercial traffic included oversized cargo such as cranes, electric turbines and generators that are easier to ship by water than highway, she said.

Just this week, turbines and generators that were stripped from shuttered central New York power plants began moving by barge to the port of Albany, where they will be loaded onto ships bound for Pakistan.

Mantello said high fuel prices and companies looking for environmentally friendly modes of shipping also helped boost commercial shipping this year. Canal boosters say they're optimistic that freight shipping will continue to rise, but they acknowledge that the volume is unlikely to return to historic levels.

Their focus over the past decade has been on marketing the canals as tourist attractions and trying to lure pleasure boaters to canal communities and pouring millions into developing trails and other waterfront amenities.

But the canals are funded mostly with highway tolls collected by the state Thruway, which has been struggling with its own budget shortfalls.

As a result, the Canal Corp.'s capital budget -- which typically is around $30 million -- has been trimmed to $20 million, and managers are only doing safety-related projects during the offseason, Mantello said.

The two main projects being done this winter and spring are reconstruction -- including replacing the steel gates -- of Lock 6 on the Erie Canal in Waterford and Lock 5 on the Oswego Canal in Minetto, Mantello said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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