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Learning curve steep for new stewards of New York’s canal system

Aug 28, 2019 11:51 AM
Lucy H., a tugboat in the New York State Marine Highway fleet, guides a barge through the Erie Canal locks at Waterford, N.Y., in May 2018. The cargo was the historic tug Reliable, which was bound for Long Island Sound to become part of an underwater reef.

Lucy H., a tugboat in the New York State Marine Highway fleet, guides a barge through the Erie Canal locks at Waterford, N.Y., in May 2018. The cargo was the historic tug Reliable, which was bound for Long Island Sound to become part of an underwater reef.

On the first day of 2017, everything seemed hunky-dory as the New York Power Authority (NYPA) assumed ownership of the New York State Canal Corp. (NYSCC) from the New York State Thruway Authority. It was also the first day of the Erie Canal’s bicentennial.

NYPA was expected to bring financial stability and efficiency to the canal corporation, without any noticeable impact on the daily operation of the system. As 2017 turned to 2018, optimism turned to pessimism, at least for the commercial marine operators plying the historic waterways.

The NYS canal system includes the Erie, Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca canals. The waterways have a 524-mile reach, linking the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes and Lake Champlain. Under the old regime, the canal corporation had been very supportive in developing commercial interest in the canal system. The payoff in 2017 was a 30-year high in commercial tonnage.

Perhaps the first clue of the changing current was the result of a NYPA competition to “Reimagine the Canals,” a call for project proposals to “promote the canal system’s heritage, foster economic development and tourism, and improve the canal system’s long-term financial sustainability.”

“Out of several proposals, not a single grant was awarded to commercial marine transport on the canals,” said Peter Bardunias, president of the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County. “This is not sour grapes, but I do wish there would have been a few awarded to the commercial sector.”

Matt Rockenstyre, a deck hand on Lucy H., tosses a line to secure the tow as it locks through the canal at Waterford, N.Y.

Bardunias said the grants “all went for bike trails, recreational facilities and the like. One good one was a grant to improve shoreside accommodation that will help the canal towns a bit. We want to continue to provide commercial canal transportation, but the chamber doesn’t see much enthusiasm for that being a priority of the canal corporation right now.”

In 1992, Gov. Mario Cuomo placed the money-losing canal system under the stewardship of the Thruway Authority. Under its management, the waterways continued to lose money, and the authority’s practice of diverting highway toll funds to the canals created a nagging controversy.

In 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed that NYPA acquire the canals. The power authority, with three hydroelectric plants and several other facilities on the Erie Canal, seemed well positioned to take the oars and navigate the system to a stable harbor.

NYPA was unresponsive to questions from Professional Mariner, but in a news release at the time of acquisition, NYPA President and CEO Gil Quiniones said, “We have anticipated this day for nearly a year and we are excited about the potential this new partnership represents. By helping to identify and streamline operations with the canal corporation, we are confident we can achieve operating efficiencies to build on the solid foundation of (the canal system).”

‘Hard on our pocketbooks’
Mid-Lakes Navigation Co. is a family-owned business that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. Until last year, the Wiles family offered cruises on the Erie Canal and Skaneateles Lake, on which Mid-Lakes also runs the mail boat. Last year, Mid-Lakes sold the canal boat, Emita II, and discontinued its Erie Canal cruises.

Pat Rossi illustration

“It is hard to be positive about the power authority because it’s been hard on our pocketbooks,” said Capt. Dan Wiles, Mid-Lakes’ project director. “The main issue is the environment of uncertainty the NYPA has created: What is our status for using their dry docks, (and) what is the operating season? The uncertainty that the NYPA has inflicted on the canals was not the sole reason we canceled our canal excursions, but it was a contributing factor.”

For starters, NYPA shortened the canal season by two weeks at each end for maintenance of the long-suffering system. “They claim the NYS Thruway neglected the system by putting Band-Aids on it during their tenure,” Wiles said. “I will say one thing positive about the NYPA: They don’t put Band-Aids on anything. When they fix something, they fix it with the next 100 years in mind, and we need that kind of attention and commitment.”

In Wiles’ opinion, the power authority is doing too much with too little. “If they had enough staff, they would not have to shorten the season when, in reality, the commercial operators on the canal would like to lengthen the season,” he said. This year, the canal system opened for navigation on May 17 and will close on Oct. 16.

Concerns about the shorter season were exacerbated by a late start in dredging at the far western reaches of the system. That caused sections of the western canals to silt up, resulting in uncertainty, delays and lost money for deep-draft tug operators.

Rob Goldman, president of the New York State Marine Highway Transportation Co., checks a barge-tracking app developed by the company. He sees a brighter future for the state’s canal system once the New York Power Authority gets “up to speed operationally.”

Another problem for commercial marine companies plying the canals is the suspension of their traditional access to the canal corporation’s dry docks. The operators now have to go outside the canal system and compete for crowded slots at a greater expense of time and money.

“The NYPA is great at the logistics of energy supply, but not at the operation of the canal system as a highway,” Bardunias said. “I believe their intentions are good, but misdirected. They are willing to put resources into it, but they need to better understand where those resources fit into the canal system. They are just not used to it.”

Bardunias explained that the chamber of commerce, marine operators and private citizens are working very hard to generate more interest in commercial transport on the canals. “And that effort spans the spectrum, from the more traditional profile of carrying large products such as stone, generators, corn, etc., to the smaller boats, like Solar Sal, transporting smaller quantities of food products and other items.”

Opportunity amid change
The prime example at the muscular end of the spectrum is the New York State Marine Highway Transportation Co. (NYSMH), a barge tow company located on the Hudson River at Troy. The company carries the lion’s share of traditional and heavy-lift cargo on the state’s canals.

A self-propelled crane barge clears debris at Lock 12 of the Erie Canal at Tribes Hill, N.Y. Shortening the canal navigation season to conduct maintenance has led to uncertainty among commercial operators.

“It’s been a steep learning curve for NYPA, but in their defense they are inheriting a 200-year-old waterway with traditions and complex operations, and they’re not going to figure it out overnight,” said Rob Goldman, NYSMH president.

Goldman explained that the canal corporation, under the Thruway Authority, was very supportive, responsive and communicative toward canal businesses and their customers. “This combination made it possible for my business to help facilitate the largest growth in commercial use in the modern barge canal era,” he said. “I can see the possibility for more growth and many more companies to use the canal if they embrace these basic principles again.”

Although frustrated, Goldman and other business owners are working with the new regime to improve the operation of the canal system. It’s simply a question of their livelihoods.

“We are not crazy about some of the changes we’ve seen under NYPA,” Goldman said. “But we’ve also seen an increase in investment in desperately needed infrastructure, and a focus on safety, which shows that their priorities are in order.”

Capt. David Borton is the designer and operator of the 40-foot Solar Sal, an innovative solar-electric boat that has carried cargo on New York’s canal system. He is now building a canal excursion boat with a similar propulsion system.

Solar Sal defines the lighter end of the canal transportation spectrum. The 40-foot, solar-electric wooden boat has made two demonstration cargo voyages on the Erie Canal and Hudson River.

The first involved shipping four tons of recycled cardboard 300 miles to Cascades Tissue Group in Mechanicville, on the Hudson River north of Troy. The other was a shipment of canned fruit from Buffalo to the city dock in Mechanicvllle.

Solar Sal represents the first cargo boat in the history of the New York state canals to transport product without using fossil fuel or mules,” Bardunias said.

A few years ago, in another demonstration of elemental propulsion on the canal system, the 39-foot sailing vessel Ceres carried a load of local specialty food products to the farmers’ market in New York City.

“We realize that a boat the size of Solar Sal or Ceres, operating as a cargo vessel, is a novelty,” Bardunias said. “But a boat that size is ideal as an excursion vessel on the canals. Tour operators would find it very economical wherever a high-speed vessel is not required.”

The tugboat Edna A. leaves Lock 9 on the Champlain Canal with an empty barge. Vessel operators hope the New York Power Authority’s investment in infrastructure will lead to more cargo transiting the system.

To that end, Capt. David Borton, designer and owner of Solar Sal, is building the first solar-electric boat in the nation that complies with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Subchapter T.

“When we look at Solar Sal, we would need to have something that is much larger that could carry more recycled product and have a mechanism to easily load and unload the product,” said Andrew Sheridan, assistant marketing director at Cascades Tissue Group. “Our facility in Mechanicville sources (by road) corrugate from local supermarkets and local box stores. That being said, if product shipped by barge is less expensive, that would make this option look very attractive.”

Bardunias said the first need is to develop industries such as Cascades that would use the canal system to bring material in and ship product out. “The time is right to look at increasing the tonnage on the canals and to site more industry on the canals,” he said, adding that land acquisition costs are low and often come with incentives. And there is an available, trainable workforce seeking employment.

“There’s so much riding on the (canal system) continuing to do well what it has for two centuries: driving economic development,” Goldman said. “We love the increased focus on safety and the renewed infrastructure. We’re waiting to see (NYPA) get up to speed operationally and embrace some of the customer service and communication principles that have made the canals so successful in the past.”

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