U.S. Waterways Face Critical Juncture
Wall Street Journal
13 July 2017
By Kris Maher
CHARLEROI, Pa.—More than a million tons of commodities normally
pass through the lock on the Monongahela River here
every month. But on a recent day, the giant steel gates that hold
back the river didn’t budge.
The 85-year-old structure is undergoing a long-delayed $2.7
billion makeover, and the lock is closed to river
traffic during the week. But it was bustling as crews worked to
build a bigger lock chamber. Seven cranes stretched
across its length. A diver in a wetsuit slipped into the river to
inspect an underwater wall.
“Progress is a good thing to see,” said Paul Meininger, the
68-year-old lockmaster in charge of the 24/7 operations at the
Charleroi Locks and Dam.
The construction south of Pittsburgh is one of several major
projects across the U.S. aimed at improving the nation’s
vital waterways network of dams and locks that make
commercial river traffic possible, enabling more than $70 billion
worth of cargo to be shipped annually, according to the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers. An example of the looming threats from the
nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the often unseen system of more
than 230 locks along 12,000 miles of river is at risk of
failing in places like Pittsburgh from decades of underinvestment.
The Lower Monongahela River Project in southwest Pennsylvania will
upgrade locks near the towns of Charleroi and Braddock
and remove a third lock in Elizabeth that was built 110 years ago.
The system of dams and locks were first put in place to
ensure that the entire length of the river was deep enough for
boats to traverse it year-round.
President Donald Trump has promised $1 trillion worth of
investments in the country’s infrastructure, but his proposed 2018
budget didn’t include funding for the Monongahela River locks
One Army Corps study shows that a failure of one of the
two locks now being rebuilt would result in $200 million
in economic losses to the region, which covers parts of
Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
“People don’t know they’re getting a $200 million benefit each
year moving through these locks and dams on the
Monongahela River,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project
manager Stephen Fritz, who is overseeing the Pittsburgh project.
He said the project was an example of upgrades needed across the
nation. “The infrastructure has reached the end of its useful
life,” he said
Begun in 1994, the Lower Mon Project was originally scheduled to
be completed by 2004. But it has suffered delays as the Ohio River
project used up most available federal funds. The Army Corps now
says it will complete the project in a scaled-down form that
provides 90% of the original plan’s benefits by 2023, but with
only one new lock instead of two, leaving many with mixed
“We’re getting a brand-new, reliable lock, which is
great. But it’s disappointing that we’re not getting both,” said
Mary Ann Bucci, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh
Commission, a state-funded agency.
Ms. Bucci said her group’s attention is focused on ensuring the
project receives $105 million in federal funding for the next
fiscal year to keep it on track, and securing additional funds in
Up close, the scale of the project and the challenges of marine
construction are evident.
Companies in steel construction and oil and gas all rely on
the locks here. But few depend more on the system than
coal mines, towing firms and power plants.
By increasing the capacity at Lock 4 and removing a
second, smaller lock, the Lower Mon Project will standardize
this part of the river so that towing companies can easily haul
nine barges throughout the region. Currently towboats can take
only six barges at a time through the Charleroi locks.
“You streamline the system,” said Michael Somales, president of
Murray American Transportation Inc., a subsidiary of Murray Energy
Corp. “It will cut costs and improve the tonnage movement—time,
distance and speed.”
Overall, transporting commodities by barge costs about half of
what it does to ship by rail and one-tenth of the cost of trucking
On a recent day, a Murray American towboat named the John L.
Rozance pushed nine barges loaded with 10,000 tons of coal 10
miles up the Monongahela River. Taking its load from the
Cumberland Mine, near Masontown, Pa., to the Fort Martin Power
Station, in Maidsville, W.Va., the towboat passed through
two locks as the river rose about 35 feet. At the
second lock, the power plant’s stacks rose into the sky just
Delivering the same 10,000 tons of coal by land would have
required 100 railcars or 443 trucks.
Brian Loring, port captain who oversees staffing for Murray
American, said that until recently he felt secure working on the
river. But the drop in coal use and long delays in upgrading
the locks around Pittsburgh have caused him to worry.
“Years ago, when I started decking, I had a captain tell me all
the time, ‘Brian, this river is not going anywhere, it will always
be here,’ ” Mr. Loring said. “It just makes you nervous.”
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