Debate over Erie Canal echoes its early history

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It was an engineering marvel that brought tremendous wealth to New York and opened up the North American interior, helping turn the United States into an international commercial powerhouse in the 19th century.

Today, managers of the storied Erie Canal are pouring tens of millions of dollars of public money into it each year as they struggle to transform the once vital freight route into a tourist destination.

The spending, and the state's decision to subsidize the canal with toll money collected from drivers on its main highway, has ignited debate about the canal's future — a topic that repeatedly has been the subject of controversy through its 200-year history.

Advocates say the Erie — and New York's three smaller canals — are historical treasures that are essential to the state's economy and worthy of public investment.

Opponents counter that the canal system is no longer a critical part of the state's transportation network and the money would be better spent elsewhere, especially as the state faces crushing deficits in coming years.

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