The Erie Canal and the Future of Transportation

Recently traveling in Upstate New York, we passed by one of the locks of the Erie Canal (No 25).  It is clear people do not understand how the system of locks and dams works.  At the TRB summer conference, someone asked me how much does it cost to sent a boat through the lock. I said it was free, as the fees where paid for at the “gas pump”.   But also, people do not understand how important the Eire Canal was in transforming New York’s, and America’s, early economy.

But this investment did not last for long, as demonstrated in the nearby town of Clyde, where I witnessed a CSX train rattling on the nearby tracks. The Canal, originally conceived as a folly, generated tremendous wealth for New York State, but it was the development of the railroads that lead to the Canal’s role as the premier western gateway fading into a foot note into history books.

Today, the Canal hearkens to simpler times, and the Finger Lakes region continues to struggle with its economic future – one based on water for recreation and agriculture, not commercial navigation.  There is a lesson here: simply depending upon transportation alone does not guarantee economic success.  But the legacy of great men should inspire us to dream great things today – things that will influence our country’s economic  future through competitive transportation.

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