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Editorial: Rethinking the canals

It’s not hard to understand why some people who use or rely on the Erie Canal are concerned about changes that could affect them. The canal has been a fact of life for almost 200 years and, for many along its banks, it’s an economic driver.

Those people should take part in the discussions and watch what happens as the state reviews the state canal system and considers changes, but the fears that have arisen since the project was announced seem misplaced. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been a friend to Western New York and to municipalities along the canal. It’s unlikely he will push for changes that would now harm them.

What is more, as society changes – an inevitable and continual process – so do its needs and expectations. It would be malpractice not to consider every so often how well the state’s canals are performing.

The task of “Reimagining the Canal,” as Cuomo has labeled it, is being pursued in what appears to be a sound and thoughtful way. The governor named 31 people to identify economic and environmental improvements in how the canal is used. The panel’s western regional co-chair is former Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy who, as a previous mayor of Rochester, had a compelling interest in the health and operations of the canal.

The group has five principal tasks:

• Identifying potential new uses for the Erie Canal aimed at improving New Yorkers’ quality of life

• Finding ways for the canal to support and enhance economic development

• Looking for new opportunities for canal-related recreation and tourism

• Determining how the canal could be used to mitigate flooding impacts and restore ecosystems

• Identifying opportunities for expanding irrigation for Western New York farms

All are sensible goals and all are promoted by a governor who, even before his election, established a record of helping canal communities. As secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, Cuomo directed $131 million in federal money to the state’s canal towns through a Canal Corridor Initiative. As governor, he has made efforts to bolster upstate areas, including municipalities along the canal.

That doesn’t automatically mean that nothing unwanted will happen, of course, or that changes benefiting one group of stakeholders might disadvantage another. That’s the reason that anyone interested should monitor the process and, to the extent possible, take part in it.

But it does mean that some initial fears are decidedly over the top. That the canal will close? That power boats will be banned? These are among the unhelpful rumors floating through the political ether. It’s time to take a deep breath.

To counter those rumors, the committee needs to ensure that it is fully transparent with its activities and decision-making. That’s how to keep interested parties informed and sure of what is transpiring. Anything short of that standard will inevitably feed the rumor mill.

That policy will also help to emphasize the benefits that the committee’s review could bring to the state’s man-made waterways, especially the Erie Canal. With that canal’s bicentennial only six years away, this is a good time to examine how better to use it – calmly, openly and with an understanding that this review is, if anything, overdue.

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