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 project.

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 emotions.

“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 future budgets.

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 goods.

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 beyond it.

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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