Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Hints of Comeback for Nation’s First Superhighway

with 3 comments

Erie Canal

Erie Canal

New York Times

Thanks to Ron Richings for passing this link along

The Erie Canal was once very important indeed. It never exactly closed and now is seeing what may be the beginnings of a revival. Mainly due to high fuel costs.

The canal still remains the most fuel-efficient way to ship goods between the East Coast and the upper Midwest. One gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by canal barge, … A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks.

What the report misses is also important. The Erie Canal is not isolated. It is part of a massive network of Waterways, most of which are maintained at the public expense by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Most are rivers which have been kept navigable as part of comprehensive management schemes to reduce flood risk, improve drainage and irrigation and ion some cases power generation.  This system of waterways moves massive amounts of freight – and not just in the summer either.

On the other hand, while inland waterways are fuel efficient, there are other costs which need to be considered. Perhaps the biggest issue is that many places are not on canal or river banks – so freight has to be handled more than once.  Secondly, transport by water is very slow. In times when the new science of logistics was being developed, the cost of maintaining large inventories became a critical part of most shippers’ calculations. All those goods belong to someone, and while in transit represent a cost – often the money borrowed to acquire them – or the capital tied up in inventory that could not be used elsewhere (lost opportunity cost). When interest rates are low, and good investment vehicles hard to find, this is of less significance.

“Short sea shipping” is being promoted here – or was until the Port Authority was asked to pipe down a bit, as it seemed to undermine case for the Gateway. But what is also happening here is that companies that are on the river banks and do use the river for transport are increasingly under pressure to move elsewhere. A large area of the Middle Arm now sees hardly any commercial traffic – and the last remaining businesses have been clobbered with new tax assessments based on the potential for their land to become condos. A somewhat odd outcome for a “business friendly” council you might think, but then some businesses are friendlier than others.  And since the big issue was always supposed to be containers double handling them on and off barges just to be put on trains makes no sense as long as there are tracks at the dockside where the deep sea vessels unload.

I spent quite a lot of my earlier career trying to deal with these issues in the UK. Of course back then oil was much cheaper and no one cared about greenhouse gas emissions. But no-one except the companies who used them liked “lorries”. It turned out that was not enough to make the economics of waterways work then. Perhaps if we started pricing things we care about properly, and planned land use and transportation in an integrated fashion this would change. I will not hold my breath on either.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2008 at 1:24 pm

3 Responses

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  1. This article started off so beautifully– the Erie Canal being used for pulling barges around in. And the picture is lovely too. But as we read on, like a worm in an apple appears the BC Government’s planned ship-to-store truck highway through the Lower Mainland. I wish I hadn’t read so far. It does not seem right that taxes should be based on “potential for development”. Is that how private home owners in cities and farm owners in the country are pressured to sell out?

    Mary Clare

    November 6, 2008 at 1:04 am

  2. The way that owners are being pressured to sell is detailed in an earlier post from North Delta

    Stephen Rees

    November 6, 2008 at 10:14 am

  3. […] blogosphere. You can see some blogger reactions listed here, with a particularly informative post here. It’s part of a realization that you don’t necessarily need to build up a brand-new […]


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