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Published: Sunday, 10/5/2003

Messing with the Erie Canal

What is a fair price for tapping into one of the nation's most historic waterways, the Erie Canal, which traverses 524 miles and connects the east coast via the Hudson River with the Great Lakes? Would $30,000 be a fair price?

Buffalo developer Richard A. Hutchens, who has contributed to the campaigns of New York Gov. George E. Pataki, paid $30,000 for exclusive access rights to 45 miles of shoreline along this enduring monument to America's canal era. He was the single bidder.

The developer would be able to make cuts in the canal, paying additional fees for each cut, and build small canals connecting real estate developments with a waterway providing boating access to the main canal, the Great Lakes, and the Hudson River. How commercially viable such a plan is remains to be seen.

Still, critics have questioned how such potentially valuable land could have been sold with so little fanfare, and some of them say the transaction is typical of the secrecy that surrounds actions of the New York State Thruway Authority and similar public entities in the state.

The canal, used now mainly by recreational boaters, is run at a loss by a subsidiary body of the Thruway Authority, It was used by commercial shipping until the St. Lawrence Seaway displaced the remaining traffic in 1959. The canal was built over an eight-year period and completed in 1825 at a cost of $8.3 million, a stupendous amount in those days. More than 9,000 workers labored on the canal, one in nine of whom died in the course of building it.

The Erie Canal was known as “Clinton's Ditch,” after Gov. De Witt Clinton, a leading Federalist politician, whose brainchild it was. Until the canal was built, Americans were still mired in the horse-and-wagon era and greatly handicapped by the difficulty of moving people and goods from one place to another. The new waterway made it possible to ship large amounts of freight to and from the interior of the country, and it turned New York State into an economic powerhouse.

The development proposal raises not only a question about state government secrecy but also about the wisdom of such a use for a historic waterway. The canal era, though brief, was important also in the development of Ohio and Indiana, where public and private entities are working hard to preserve remnants of these important historical waterways.

Somehow, such a trifling price for the contract on one of the pioneering infrastructure projects of the United States seems inappropriate. Moreover, the environmental effects of making canal cuts and building real estate developments are unclear.

State officials now are looking into the deal. The fact that only one bid was received is a clear sign that this contract was poorly handled at best and should be reconsidered in its entirety, with due attention to the environmental and historical importance of the canal.



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