Possible lessons from low boat traffic on Rideau Canal

Parks Canada employees hand-cranking a gate at Upper Beveridge Lock, on the Tay Canal branch of the RIdeau Canal, July 2013. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Parks Canada employees hand-cranking a gate at Upper Beveridge Lock, on the Tay Canal branch of the Rideau Canal, July 2013. Photo: Lucy Martin

Here’s a specific instance of something that taxpayers and administrator everywhere may need to think about. Namely: once programs start cutting, is a self-fulfilling, downward spiral created?

Take Ontario’s Rideau Canal. It’s historic, picturesque and popular. Area residents love it. The canal draws visitors who bring much-needed revenue to diverse communities from Kingston to Ottawa. The canal is run by Parks Canada, which wrestles with the same rising costs and lower funding most agencies face these days.

As reported in previous posts, Parks Canada considered raising fees. But the proposed hikes seemed draconian. Public backlash lead to a freeze on fees, pending further study. The remaining cost-cutting option was to reduce hours of operation, which went into effect this season.

Well, the summer boat traffic statistics are in for 2013 and (big surprise) they’ve been down from the get-go.

As reported by Don Butler for the Ottawa Citizen, the over-all season is on track for a new modern low:

Through the end of August, 51,202 boats had passed through the locks since the 181-year-old canal — declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007 — opened for the season on May 17.

The canal remains open until Oct. 14. But with boat traffic typically low through the fall shoulder season, 2013 lockages are unlikely to reach the previous record seasonal low of 58,915 in 2004, when a strike by lockmasters disrupted operations.

Butler says those numbers peaked in 1982, at close to 100,000.

Some observers fault Parks Canada for generating fear and confusion about fee hikes and shorter hours, or for not properly promoting the canal. Parks Canada points to contributing factors totally beyond their control, including a cool spring, changing patterns of boat ownership and use, and high fuel costs – all of which afffect traffic as well.

Setting this one case aside, the broader management issues are worth pondering. If budgets are tight (and they are) and changes have to come (as they may) how can services and programs still look and feel robust enough to be of use?

Because if something looks ill and feels grumpy, that alone can lead to a downward spiral of reduced demand, which justifies lower funding, which further reduces demand. Failure to thrive can become death by neglect, a regrettable outcome.

Civil servants, business owners, taxpayers and civic groups, is this something you have lived through?

How would you suggest making cuts while keeping the service in question attractive enough to survive – and perhaps thrive – while getting through tough times?

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8 Comments on “Possible lessons from low boat traffic on Rideau Canal”

  1. @tourpro says:

    Could be related to exchange-rate too – many Canadians find it cheaper to recreate South now.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    Could be “been there, done that.”
    On the other hand, the canal could be finding the level of use that would be sustainable.
    Humans really need to get beyond the “everything must be bigger and better every year” mantra.
    I think there is something wrong with our brains.
    What a dread most about the upcoming holidays is the advertising encouraging everyone to make this the “best whatever ever.”

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  3. Two Cents says:

    yes pete,…….the superlative season…..

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  4. Paul says:

    Maybe people don’t care about canals anymore. You don’t even have to leave your house to play video games you know?

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  5. Rosi says:

    We visited Ottawa, for the first time, on September 3,2103. We drove up from the Adirondacks in NY for a one night stay at the chateau laurier. We rented bikes to pedal along the canal and had a great dinner at the Black Tomato. While biking, when we crossed over the canal we noticed a family coming through the locks on canoes. It was fascinating to see the locks operate and chat with the lock operators. It was a nice surprise to our day. Now that I’ve read the article I’d have to say that the locks (as a tourist attraction) are not receiving much marketing effort. We only happened into them by chance, no one at the hotel mentioned that they were a world heritage site, etc. and even when we were at the locks there wasn’t a sign describing their history, usage, hours, or anything that would inform us. We are curious types and the operators were very friendly and amazingly didn’t seem bored with their jobs. All in all, Ottawa is a beautiful small city that deserves more notice!

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  6. Paul says:

    Other than the upper and lower locks on the Saranac chain are there any other locks in the Adirondacks?

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  7. Two Cents says:

    I used to travel through the locks that were at each end of sand lake in Ontario as a kid with a canoe. the lock masters were always friendly, and upbeat. this was a time when if you had a chance to operate the lock’s winches it was a treat and a privilege. that was the lockmaster’s job and he was particular about who he let help him. as a youngster, it was a very special experience.
    the history on the canal is just as special.

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  8. Rosi says:

    i don’t know of any other Adirondack locks beyond those on Saranac Lake.
    The days we visited Ottawa’s locks, the lockmaster wouldn’t let us try the crank despite our asking him. Told us he was no longer permitted to let anyone near it after some horrible accident last year. The antique mechanism does seem rickety, so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s dangerous. It’s wonderful that they are still in use and are maintained with historical integrity.

    Our hot topic at the moment in the Adirondacks is a debate about whether to convert our old railroad beds to a 90 mile biking trail. Most everyone is in favor of removing the tracks and pedalling on a nice flat, scenic corridor. A few train enthusiast however see the track removal as the end of their last hope of reviving train service. It’s really the difference between a 1 million dollar immediate project and a 100 million dollar dream (to bring trains back). It’s a no brainer from my perspective, but the debate rages on. Your Ottawa bike trails are awesome!

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