Forces Line Up to Keep Allegheny River Locks Open

Aspinwall Herald
16 February 2011
By Mary Ann Thomas

As the Army Corps of Engineers decides between closing the upper locks of the Allegheny River to recreational boaters or cutting operating hours in the lower locks, public officials and boaters vow they will fight to keep the locks open.

The president's proposed fiscal 2012 budget slashes the Allegheny River's locks and dams budget by more than 50 percent. The president's proposal sets operating funds at $4 million for the next fiscal year, which begins in October.

While popular with boaters and beloved for its emerald beauty, the Allegheny River doesn't have enough commercial barge traffic to qualify for much federal support, which is based on moving commodities.

As such, the Allegheny locks, along with 121 other so-called low-use waterway facilities across the county, are facing a drastic funding cut.

Congress will approve the federal budget, but the sentiment in Washington this year calls for budget cuts.

At a news conference at Lock and Dam No. 2 near the Highland Park Bridge on Tuesday, Col. William Graham, the Army Corps' Pittsburgh District engineer, urged the public to attend meetings in O'Hara on Feb. 22 and Kittanning on Feb. 24 to voice their concerns and come up with ideas to keep the locks open.

"The Allegheny River belongs to the people of this region," Graham said.

Corps officials say they want to gauge public interest before making a final decision in the next month on where to ax operations on the Allegheny River.

The alternatives being considered by the corps are to cut service from Lock No. 2 at the Highland Park Bridge in Pittsburgh to Lock No. 4 in Natrona (Harrison) or close the locks from No. 5 in Schenley near Freeport to Lock No. 9 in Rimer to recreational traffic.

Commercial boats can continue to make appointments to pass through the locks.

If Armstrong County Commissioners have their way, Lock No. 5 in Schenley to Lock No. 9 in Rimer will remain open. They operate on a limited schedule.

Armstrong County Commissioner Jim Scahill has been through lock funding crunches before. A longtime boater, Scahill remembers when lock service from Schenley to Rimer was provided around the clock.

Then in the 1980s, Scahill said that cuts to the upper locks' operating hours became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"In the 1980s, we still had businesses along the river like Schenley," Scahill said, referring to a liquor distillery that hauled product by barge. "They're gone because of the locks."

Kittanning branded its outdoor recreation with the river, its amphitheater and riverfront park.

"We have people finally getting back on the river," he said.

Having a closed pool would take away access to the town by boaters who often make sojourns to Kittanning for concerts and other special events.

"Closing the locks and dams -- will that be the end of it?" Scahill asked. "No, but it's another nail in the coffin."

Armstrong Commissioner Rich Fink said a number of businesses will lose out if the recreation dollars don't keep flowing.

Fink helped conduct a recreational study of the Kittanning area and found that a number of business benefitted from boaters coming to the region, including gas stations and local restaurants.

"The recreational use is tremendous," Fink said, "and this could really hurt the communities from Freeport to East Brady to Parker."

Fink and Scahill want to explore a public/private partnership with the Corps, offering up manpower to operate the locks.

Both men say they will fight to keep the river navigation system open. "You've got a couple of Irishmen here."

Downriver, boaters and public officials are concerned as well.

"As recreational boaters, it will destroy us if you can't go pool to pool," said Tom Kish, the mayor of Brackenridge who is a boater and longtime river user.

"People who come from upriver to spend money, you won't see them," Kish said, "and it will hurt towns like Brackenridge, Tarentum and Oakmont.

"People from the north go to the Oakmont Yacht Club to just to spend the weekend there."

James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh, which represents the commercial interests of the area rivers, is concerned about cutting the maintenance.

In addition to the service cuts, the corps is cutting all money for major maintenance projects on the Allegheny's locks and dams.

"The problem is a whole lot more serious than what is being presented," McCarville said.

"If we eliminate maintenance now, it will cost much more in the future to fix it," he said. "And if there's some failure, there's no guarantee that the lock and dam will be fixed. And that's even more frightening."

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer with The Herald in Aspinwall.