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Federal reforms blamed for loss of funds to restore Erie Canal locks

The Democratic-controlled Congress' new rules against earmarking money for local projects have knocked out $500,000 the city hoped to receive this year for restoring the original Erie Canal locks.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, had inserted the money into a transportation appropriations bill that failed to pass while Republicans were in charge on Capitol Hill.

Democrats have blamed the earmark system for wasteful spending and for contributing to some bribery scandals.

Mayor Michael W. Tucker said failure to obtain the funds won't prevent preliminary work to be undertaken before the canal reopens to boats in April.

"We're proceeding as normal. This is just a bump in the road," said Tucker, who has made the "Flight of Five" his top tourism priority.

The term refers to the five stair-step locks that once lifted boats up and down the Niagara Escarpment. They have been used only as a spillway for more than 90 years, since the current two steel locks opened in 1914.

"Essentially, the $500,000, even though it was a substantial amount of money, represents only 5 percent of the total project cost," said David R. Kinyon, chairman of the city's Flight of Five Committee.

"It's unfortunate it got caught in end-of-election-year politics, but we still have a strong commitment from Congressman Reynolds as well as [State] Sen. [George D.] Maziarz, and we hope to get a commitment from Gov. [Eliot L.] Spitzer," Kinyon added.

Tucker said the city already has $3.5 million in state and federal money on hand to start the project.

Although more money is needed, Tucker said, "We all expected things like this to happen. It's a difficult project. It's an expensive project."

L.D. Platt, Reynolds' spokesman, could not be reached to comment.

Before the navigation season reopens, the city hopes built-up sediment in the old locks will be cleaned out and a hydraulic study is completed by Bergmann Associates, the Rochester engineering firm the city signed a contract with this month.

Carmella R. Mantello, director of the State Canal Corp., said her agency's engineers are reviewing plan drawings from Bergmann.

She said had spoken with a Canal Corp. engineer, whom she described as "optimistic the project's moving forward nicely."

The main issue involves water overflowing the current locks, which now runs down the Flight of Five.

"We're trying to find an alternate route for the overflow," the mayor said. "In the middle of the abutment, there's a big pipe they used to use for the overflow. We could use that, and it would solve the whole problem."

The drain, long capped, runs from the south wall of the Flight of Five under the steep set of concrete stairs that visitors can use to descend to the small museum the state operates below the locks.

"Our folks had mentioned that at a meeting three or four months ago," Mantello said. "As the project moves forward, we're learning more about the Flight of Five and the system there."

She said the city has yet to apply for a use and occupancy permit.

State engineers must approve the plans as well.

The hydraulic study must answer other questions.

Sediment removal will uncover concrete that hasn't been exposed in generations, and Tucker said the Bergmann firm must determine whether it can withstand the restoration work as well as water running over it again once the lock gates are replaced and the structure operates again.


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