Schimminger Urges Governor to Veto Flawed Canal Bill

August 6, 2007

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, who represents the Tonawandas in the State Assembly, is urging the governor to “close the locks” on a proposed new law that would change the legally defined western terminus of the Erie Canal from Tonawanda to Buffalo.

In a letter sent today to Governor Eliot Spitzer, Assemblyman Schimminger said, “This proposal fails the tests of common sense, logic and reasonableness,” and urged the governor to veto the measure (A.5764/S.4998).

The lawmaker pointed out that the state’s existing Canal Law is geographically and navigationally accurate in defining Tonawanda and Waterford as the points at which the Erie Canal meets the Niagara and Hudson rivers, respectively. He also said that the sponsors of the legislation that would change that law to describe Buffalo as the western terminus of the canal and Albany as its eastern terminus were mistaken in contending that the change would open up new sources of federal funding to the cities of Buffalo and Albany because the National Park Service’s Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor funding program already incorporates “the historic alignments of these canals, including the cities of Albany and Buffalo.” He noted that state funding to Buffalo and Albany for projects related to their historic connections to the canal has also been granted under the current statutory language.

Schimminger, who has helped direct considerable state funding to the development of the vibrant North Tonawanda/Tonawanda (Erie Canal) Gateway Harbor, says that Buffalo was, is and will continue to be commemorated as the Erie Canal’s historic (prior to 1918) western terminus, but Tonawanda is rightfully recognized as the western terminus of today’s actual, living and operational navigational waterway. In his letter urging the governor’s veto, Schimminger characterized the bill as “an outdated and ill-conceived legislative exercise which replaces accuracy with nostalgia and does not merit enactment into law.”

The governor has until August 15 to veto or sign the measure.

Schimminger’s 8/6/07 letter to Governor Spitzer follows.

August 6, 2007

Honorable Eliot Spitzer
Executive Chamber
The Capitol
Albany, NY 12224

Re: A.5764/S.4998

Dear Governor Spitzer:

I am writing to voice my strong opposition to A.5764/S.4998, which has been passed by both houses of the Legislature and is now before you for review and consideration. This bill changes the legal definition of the Erie Canal, which is set out in Article 1, §2 of the Canal Law. Current law defines the Erie Canal as connecting to the Hudson River at Waterford and to the Niagara River at Tonawanda. A.5764/S.4998 would change those connecting points to Albany and Buffalo, respectively.

I oppose this legislation as presented, and over the years have voted against it consistently on the floor of the Assembly, for two very important reasons. First, the current statutory definition of the Erie Canal is geographically accurate and reflects the actual connecting points of the canal with the Hudson and Niagara Rivers. Second, the sponsors’ justification that a change in definition is needed to enable Albany and Buffalo to qualify for canal grants is misleading and inaccurate. Let me explain further.

The current description of the Erie Canal in §2 of the Canal Law reflects the navigational alignment of the canal as it exists today. Today’s Erie Canal is very different from DeWitt Clinton’s original four-foot-deep ditch that was dug by hand. Reinvented over the years, the Erie Canal was enlarged in 1835 (Chapter 274) and increased to a depth of seven feet in 1895 (Chapter 79). When use of the Erie Canal began to decline with the rise of the railroads, Governor Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Canal Committee to recommend a strategy for the future use of the canal. While abandonment was considered, the Canal Committee recommended major changes to the canal system that would enable the system to handle barge traffic. Those changes were embraced by Governor Roosevelt in his 1900 message to the Legislature. Legislative approval followed and a funding initiative (Chapter 147 of 1903) that was put before the voters was passed in 1903. The State Engineer and Surveyor designed and executed the canal changes which not only redirected the water flow in the canal system, but altered the canal’s route and structure as well. The modernized canal was fully operational in 1918. Corresponding changes were made in Canal Law to reflect the route changes of the Erie Canal - as most of the original canal route was abandoned - which changed the beginning and end of the canal from Albany and Buffalo to Waterford and Tonawanda, respectively. This definition continues to be accurate and geographically correct. Enclosed is a map that has been developed by the National Park Service, Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor program. This map charts the route of the canals operating in New York State today as well as the canal routes as they were in the 19th century. Clearly, the route of the operating Erie Canal is from Waterford to Tonawanda.

To reinforce the importance of the Erie Canal as a transportation route, please note the New York State Canal Corporation’s May 7, 2007, press release, copy enclosed, announcing the opening of the canal system’s 182nd navigation season. The release states that the Erie Canal is open for navigation from Lock E-2 in Waterford to Lock E-23 in Brewerton and from Tonawanda/North Tonawanda to Lock E-27 in Lyons. The release indicates no points of entry to the canal in either Buffalo or Albany. Accurate geographical descriptions are key to developing maps and other resources not only for boaters, but also for bikers, hikers and families who use the canal trails and greenway for recreational purposes.

Canal Laws have governed the administration and operation of the Erie Canal since the early 1800s. Just as the Highway Law defines the starting and ending points of state highways, the Canal Law defines the starting and ending points of each of the canals that constitute the state’s canal system, including the Erie Canal.

The funding issue raised by the sponsors of A.5764/S.4998 is outdated and no longer accurate. The sponsors’ memorandum seeks to justify the change in canal definition as necessary so as to make Buffalo and Albany eligible for canal-related funding through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While that may have provided some slight justification in 1999 when this legislation was first introduced, it is no longer operative. In fact, HUD’s canal program was short-lived and had ended in 1997, never since to be resurrected.

Federal resources pertaining to the canal have been redirected to the National Park Service with the creation of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor (Public Law 106-554) in December 2000. This designation demonstrated a federal interest in policy and funding opportunities to preserve and enhance both the natural and cultural resources along the canal system and defines the Erie Canalway as “the 524 miles of navigable canal that comprise the New York State Canal System, including the Erie, Cayuga and Seneca, Oswego, and Champlain Canals and the historic alignments of these canals, including the cities of Albany and Buffalo” (emphasis added). Buffalo and Albany are thus both presently eligible for federal funding under the National Heritage Corridor program. On June 6, 2007, the National Park Service announced that it is preparing new outdoor exhibits that will be placed on the Buffalo waterfront at the historic location of the Canal. These exhibits will feature Buffalo’s transformation from a frontier outpost to a city. In addition, a $25,000 grant was awarded by the National Park Service to chronicle Buffalo’s grain milling history and connection to the Erie Canal and Lake Erie shipping.

On a related matter, the New York State Canal Corporation, which has become a strong advocate for a canal greenway, has also already provided funding for Buffalo’s and Albany’s canal-related projects. The Canal Corporation’s Erie Canal Greenway awards in 2006 provided a $225,000 grant to the Buffalo River Park Project to fund a portion of the project that develops a 2.5 acre linear park on the historic, but no longer functioning, Erie Canal route that parallels the Niagara River with dock space, launching facilities, food concessions, lavatory/showers, taxi service, storage facilities, picnic areas, walking trails, a boardwalk, amphitheatre and interpretative center. At the same time, the City of Albany received $173,250 for its Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail for trail resurfacing and widening, drainage improvements, pedestrian/bicyclist railing, benches and kiosks. The Erie Canal’s current definition – Waterford to Tonawanda – has neither hindered nor denied Buffalo or Albany access to or receipt of federal or state funding for canal projects.

Although the heyday of the 19th Century Erie Canal is long gone, it must be remembered that the Erie Canal still exists and remains a remarkable waterway in the 21st Century. Everyone certainly respects the historical significance of the Erie Canal’s ties to Buffalo, Albany, Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, Waterford and a host of communities in between. Certainly, the Erie Canal represents our common, collective heritage, part of the fabric of our culture and a legacy to celebrate and preserve. At the same time, we should all recognize and promote today’s Erie Canal. The Erie Canal continues to flow though numerous communities – Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, Fairport, Lyons, Little Falls, Waterford, et. al. – which have partnered with the New York State Canal Corporation and Department of State and the federal Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor program to preserve, enhance, and beautify the Erie Canal corridor as a boating destination and the canalside greenway as a recreational area. The Erie Canal has been in continuous operation since 1825 and its history is still being written. Therefore, changes in Canal Law should reflect the state’s ongoing commitment to administer, preserve and develop the Erie Canal, and its history should continue to be chronicled in the works of historians, safeguarded by our museums and libraries, and acknowledged by exhibits and markers.

A.5764/S.4998 is an outdated and ill-conceived legislative exercise which replaces accuracy with nostalgia and does not merit enactment into law. The bill’s stated intent to enhance funding opportunities for canal development in Buffalo and Albany is outdated and no longer valid. Further, the move to change the designation of a transportation route and a navigable waterway from an accurate geographical description to a historical reference that was valid 182 years ago is not a sound concept from an engineering and management standpoint. And this proposal certainly fails the tests of common sense, logic and reasonableness. The facts in this matter are clear, compelling and convincing. A.5764/S.4998 should not become law. Therefore, I respectfully urge you to veto this measure.

Thanking you in advance for your attention to this matter, I remain

Sincerely yours,
Robin Schimminger