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Great Lakes Article:

Effort to boost boating sinks
By Alan Morrell
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Published July 4, 2006

Paul and Jean Miller of Churchville saved $100 this year on fees they typically spend for an annual pass to boat on the state canal system.

"It's a nice gesture by the state, but they're not going to see the impact they had hoped," said Paul Miller, while sitting on his boat, Camelot, which was docked in Brockport.

The state has waived the fees for boating on the canal this year in hopes of spurring tourism. But at least so far this boating season, boat traffic does not seem to have increased on the canal in the Rochester area.

Boaters such as the Millers say that the high price of gasoline is the main reason. "Unfortunately ... that will cut back on the number of boats out," Paul Miller said.

The Millers, who were boating the canal in June, said they scrapped plans for a longer trip because of fuel costs, which they said have ranged from $3.30 to $3.60 per gallon at marinas, about 50 to 80 cents more than last year. Boating from Brockport to Fairport, roughly a 40-mile round trip on the canal, cost them $140, the Millers said.

"You know the state doesn't give you a break often," Jean Miller said. "So they tried. But it's not much of a difference."

The fees were waived this year as a pilot program. The state hopes to make the waiver permanent, said Jennifer Meicht, spokeswoman for the state Canal Corp.

The state formerly issued two-day, 10-day and season passes for canal boating, with costs ranging from $5 to $100, depending on the length of the vessel, Meicht said.

The fee removal was decided upon after five months of community meetings, she said.

"We heard loud and clear that the tolls were a burden on boaters in terms of the paperwork and time it took to process a pass, and it discouraged some people in New York from taking their boats out for the day or the afternoon on the canal," she said.

When tolls were first imposed on the canal in 1994, state officials noticed a 15 percent decrease in use that year, she said.

The tolls generated $180,000 to $230,000 annually, Meicht said. This year's revenue loss is offset by a one-time $200,000 grant from the State Parks Department as part of a program to enhance boater access on the canal.

"Getting rid of the tolls was really a no-brainer in terms of encouraging more people to use the canal," Meicht said.

Some areas of the canal, such as Pittsford and Lockport, Niagara County, have seen increases in recreational boat traffic this season, according to state-released statistics. Other areas have had decreases.

Meicht blamed rainy weather for the lower-than-expected figures so far this season. She also said recent flooding, which caused widespread closures of the canal system, will surely affect the season's final numbers, although it's unclear by how much.

The flooding did not affect the Rochester area, but it forced the closing of 45 of the system's 57 locks and nearly 300 miles of the 524-mile waterway last week. As of Sunday, the Erie Canal remained closed from Waterford, Saratoga County, to Baldwinsville, Onondaga County; the Champlain and the Oswego canals also remained closed.

Boating enthusiasts say the spike in fuel costs will keep the traffic numbers down.

"People are very pleased when they hear there aren't any tolls. But in the big scheme of things, (tolls) are not a 'make-or-break-your-summer' factor," said Peter Wiles, owner of Midlakes Erie Macedon Landing, a canalside marina in Macedon, Wayne County. "Mostly it's the fuel costs ... I don't think everyone is understanding yet that there are no fees this year."

Meicht said the Canal Corp. has tried to get the word out through brochures and mailings, the Internet, and through advertising in state and national publications.

The previous costs associated with canal boating were not for boating on the canal itself, but for passing through locks or areas where drawbridges had to be raised, said Louis Allen, owner of Allen's Marina in Brockport.

He said boaters at his marina, which has 60 spaces for boats, have been pleased with the fee removal.

Allen also applauded state efforts to improve conditions along the canal for instance, he said, boaters are finding bridges and locks better staffed than in past years.

"That ensures that someone would be there to let you through when you get to a place," he said. "But so far, the season has been slow. The cost of fuel is dampening some people's spirits."

But many "serious" boaters who have invested a lot in their vessels said they will be boating regardless of fuel costs.

Don and Barb Phillips of Nunda, Livingston County, said they spent $55 for a canal season pass last year.

"The cost wouldn't impact us one way or another," Don Phillips said. "For leisure, one should expect to pay something." He and his wife said last week that they had been on the canal for four days; they were docked in Brockport on a rainy day.

"I don't think $55 is unreasonable," Barb Phillips said. "Had they not waived the fees, we would have filled out the applications anyway."

They also praised the canal improvements, such as a "welcome center" that opened last year in Brockport.

Charles and Anna Jankowski of Monroe, Mich., also were docked in Brockport last week.

They and their two sons had traveled from Michigan across Lake Erie through the Niagara River to Tonawanda, Erie County, where they got on the Erie Canal.

The Jankowskis had toured the canal for a week last year. They had planned to return regardless of fuel or usage fees, because they had such a good time.

"The fee didn't factor one way or another," Charles Jankowski said.

Said Anna Jankowski, "We described it as driving down a country road. But we were shocked that it wasn't crowded."


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