Effort Begins to Keep Allegheny River Locks Open

Aspinwall Herald
23 February 2011
By Mary Ann Thomas

Boaters and business officials threw out suggestions and concerns about how to keep the locks open on the Allegheny River last night at the first of two public meetings.

The Army Corps of Engineers is trying to navigate its funding of operations on the Allegheny River, which were axed by 50 percent in President Obama's proposed fiscal 2012 budget.

Because there's little commercial traffic on the Allegheny, it's considered a low commercial use project, which tagged the river along with similar inland navigation facilities as a prime target for federal spending cuts.

With its depleted funds at $4 million for fiscal 2012, which begins in October, the Corps will decide by March 31 where to close locks and where to cut hours.

"We've got to make tough choices," said Col. William Graham, Pittsburgh District engineer. "Maybe we can brainstorm and come up with some other options," he said at the Corps public meeting last night at O'Hara Elementary School. About 50 people attended.

A second meeting is scheduled for Thursday in West Kittanning, Armstrong County, where the corps might close some locks.

The two options on the table are:

• Close Lock No. 5 in Schenley to Lock No. 9 in Rimer to recreational boat traffic while leaving Lock No. 2 near the Highland Park Bridge through Lock No. 4 in Natrona open around the clock.

• Cut hours for Locks 2 through 4, reduce hours further for Locks 5 through 7 and close Locks 8 and 9 to recreational boat traffic.

In both cases, commercial barges could pass through the locks by appointment.

The service cuts would go in effect Oct. 1.

Corps officials says they could end up with the hybrid option depending on public interest. But either way, boaters who travel the river might be shut out depending on where they are and when.

"If the locks close and it's (equivalent to) a lake, what value is my boat?" asked Jeff Lambert of Richland, who owns a 48-foot

Sea Ray. "I've got a big boat. It's hard to carry around a lock."

Lambert said that he wouldn't mind paying a locking fee, just like he already pays a boat registration fee to the state Fish and Boat Commission.

He wanted to know how the boaters and businesses could best organize themselves to really help find more reliable funding for the locks.

Some suggested an auxiliary volunteer corps to help operate the locks -- and even repair them. Others wanted to see if Congress could change the federal funding formula for the locks and not base its allocation to the Allegheny just on commercial tonnage.

Barry Ward of Brackenridge, a member of the River Forest Yacht Club, wanted to know why all river users can't pay for the locks.

"The power plants are exploiting the infrastructure and not contributing," he said.

Others were concerned about long-term funding of the aged locks and dams with a backlog of delayed maintenance.

"We've got an $8 million a year problem that we're taking on," said James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh, which represents the commercial interests of the area rivers.

As maintenance was completely cut from the Allegheny River budget, there are two hydraulic pumps purchased last year that can't be installed at the locks because there's no money to pay for the installation, according to David Sneberger, chief of the lock and dams branch of the Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District.

Business people were rocked by the prospect of losing business if less boaters can visit the river towns because of limited access through the locks.

"I think it could be devastating to development," said Mary Bowlin, president of the Allegheny Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"Anything that impacts the recreational boaters affects the small towns like Brackenridge, Tarentum, Natrona and Freeport."

As a Freeport resident, Bowlin said that they are trying to build a courtesy dock just to draw more boaters to visit the town and frequent its restaurants.

Many more people could be affected by the operations cuts including emergency services.

Tom Witas of Blawnox, a lieutenant with Blawnox Volunteer Fire Company's river rescue, asked Sneberger what would happen if they needed to access the locks to reach other pools for river emergencies.

It could take at least an hour for emergency Corps staff to help, he said.

Coming up

Who: Army Corps of Engineers

What: Meeting to discuss cuts to funding for Allegheny River locks and dams

When: 7 p.m., Thursday

Where: West Kittanning Fire Department, West Kittanning

Mary Ann Thomas can be reached at mthomas@tribweb.com or 412-782-2121 x1510.