Aging Mon River Locks and Dams in Need of Upgrades
Crews are working to fix Locks and Dam No. 3 in Elizabeth for
the second time in eight years
Washington PA Observer Reporter
18 July 2014
By Mike Jones, Staff writer
ELIZABETH – Chunks of fallen concrete scattered inside the
“dewatered” chamber of the Monongahela River Locks and Dam No. 3
made for an interesting souvenir for visiting dignitaries, but
they also provided a strong warning about the aging infrastructure
along America’s interior waterways.
The concrete chunks, along with other problems inside the empty
chamber near Elizabeth, were evidence of the 107-year-old
facility’s age that had long outlived its expected lifespan when
it was constructed at the turn of the 20th century.
“Rusted concrete doesn’t last forever,” Corps of Engineers Chief
of Maintenance Don Fogel said while standing on the floor of the
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered a tour of the locks and
dam Friday morning amid the two-month rehabilitation project to
highlight the need for better infrastructure funding for what
officials say is the often forgotten waterway system, compared to
roads and rails.
“Today, we’re seeing a new environment where our infrastructure is
no longer new and it’s in need of maintenance,” Col. Bernard
Lindstrom said. “Understanding the value of each drop of water
that spills over the dam is evidence of the need for these
Lindstrom, commander of the Corps of Engineers District in
Pittsburgh, said many don’t understand the value of the country’s
interior waterways and the amount of commerce that is moved on
them. Nearly 16 tons of goods and materials passed through
Elizabeth locks last year, and that number continues to increase.
As officials were talking, a CSX train rumbled by with dozens of
cars filled to the brim with coal. It was an example of how
officials said many people think of trucks and trains as the
backbone of commerce, while neglecting river improvements.
“The river is very efficient, but all of these efficiencies are
being challenged by the aging infrastructure,” said Martin Hettel,
chairman of the Inland Waterway Users board.
The Pittsburgh District oversees 23 locks and dams on the three
major rivers – 10 percent of the total facilities operated
nationwide by the Corps – which help control flooding and allow
for continuous transportation throughout the year.
The Elizabeth locks and dam are between similar facilities in
Charleroi and Braddock. Those two locks are currently getting
extensive upgrades that the Corps of Engineers hope will allow
them to eventually dismantle the decrepit Elizabeth site and
dredge the river to correct the water level, which ultimately
would improve the shipping lanes along the Mon.
That lower Mon River improvement project was authorized in the
early 1990s and supposed to be completed a decade ago, but a
dwindling revenue stream in recent years has pushed those plans
back to 2028. The Elizabeth locks were supposed to be removed by
2004, but now have undergone two costly maintenance projects –
including the current one – just to keep them functioning
properly. They likely will remain for another decade, possibly
“We had a good start on this project … but it stalled with the
funding,” Army Corps project manager Jeanine Hoey said.
The $2.7 billion lower Mon River project gets more expensive over
the years as temporary patches continued to be placed on the
Elizabeth locks and dam.
The federal Water Resources Reform Development Act, signed into
law earlier this year, authorizes new projects, but the Corps
still needs more appropriations to perform the work. For now, they
are selecting which issues need to be repaired immediately, what
can be repaired at a lower cost and what projects can wait for
another day when funding becomes available.
That prompted a lively conversation led by Hettel about whether
there should be a greater burden on recreational boaters and
industries located along the water, rather than taxing gasoline
used by ships that travel the rivers. Lindstrom raised the idea of
a public-private partnership to raise more money.
“What’s the new model?” Lindstrom said. “We don’t have the
answers, but we have some thoughts.”
Until there are changes, Corps of Engineers Ohio River Division
Program Director David Dale said they will prioritize. He said
they are looking at their budgets and decided on rehab projects
that would provide maximum value to the public and commerce.
“We can’t do it all any longer,” Dale said. “We’re working very
hard to assure you that we are prioritizing that work to deliver
the maximum value.”
About 60 percent of the Corps’ locks and dams are more than 50
years old, which is their typical lifespan, and that number is
expected to spike to 85 percent by 2030, he said.