Allegheny River Service Cuts to Reduce Hours of Operation

Leader Times
26 September 2011
By Renatta Signorini

Tammy Wensel loved traveling south on summer days, floating along the Allegheny River and spending the day with friends.

She and her husband Eric Wensel would make a day of it -- from Bradys Bend through Locks 9 at Rimer and 8 at Templeton before grabbing a bite to eat at the Allegheny Mariner in Kittanning. Those trips will be a thing of the past with a service reduction plan being implemented in late October by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in response to federal budget cuts.

"It's not just us," she said. "There's quite a crowd from up there who do that same routine."

The reduction plan is necessitated by a significant cut in federal funding for the Allegheny River navigation system -- from $8.4 million to $4 million, according to the Corps of Engineers. The plan was decided on in March by the Corps after two public hearings at which boaters and residents could state their opinions on the possibility of service at the locks being changed or eliminated.

Significantly affected in the plan is Armstrong County, home of Locks 5-9, where recreational boating and tourism play important roles. The upper two locks -- 8 and 9 -- will be closed completely to recreational boaters as part of the plan -- commercial lockages will be available by appointment. Locks 6 and 7 -- Clinton and Kittanning -- will be open on weekends and holidays during boating season for recreation and commercial traffic.

For the Wensels, the plan impedes their downtime. But for others, the changes could affect their livelihood.

Lauren Chorney, co-owner of Rosston Eddy Marina, said some boats docking there are too large to be trailered around to various spots.

"You can go to any lake and be lakebound," she said. "But one of the reasons they boat here rather than a lake is because they can go somewhere. If you can't go anywhere, it kind of loses the impetus of the whole thing."

"A lot of boats would go through on the holidays because they like to go to East Brady," she said. "Those people up north can't come down here anymore."

The service reduction plan will affect business, Chorney said.

"It's not getting any easier and the locks being closed don't help it a bit," she said.

It won't be a good thing for Jeff Larkin, owner of the Allegheny Mariner where boaters can dock during warmer months and come in for drinks or a meal.

"In the summertime, our business thrives because of the boaters," Larkin said. "We get a lot of customers from the upper two pools in the summer."

He thinks customers may stop coming because "they're not going to get in their car and drive down on a sunny Sunday afternoon."

Arts on the Allegheny chairwoman Mary Ann Valasek said boaters enhance the experience of the organization's summer concert series in the John Murtha Amphitheater of Kittanning Riverfront Park.

"We love the boaters, it's a great backdrop," she said. "I thought it was a dimension to the whole concert series."

Valasek said she is thinking about requesting the locks be open on concert days -- the Corps has said it would be willing to provide service for special events.

"The artists love it," she said.

No choice

Army Corps of Engineers Allegheny River Initiative project manager Kevin Logan said the budget for operations and maintenance on the waterway was essentially cut in half from $8 million to $4 million. That left the Corps with the job of determining how to make the system work with about half as much money.

"We had to go out and look at how are we going to operate and maintain that river with what we were going to get," Logan said.

The Corps came up with some options and presented them to the public during two comment-gathering sessions. The plan was announced in the spring.

"This is all based on the feedback we've gotten," he said, adding that the Corps is about halfway through the process of identifying other opportunities in the region for employees currently working at the affected locks.

On or about Oct. 23, the Corps will start implementing the reductions, he said.

"We're trying to push this out to get the boating season in," Logan said, and the plan could be fully in place by the end of the year. "It's not going to happen overnight."

Armstrong County will be affected greatly, said Logan and Jeff Hawk, Corps Pittsburgh district spokesman. Because the county sees a minute amount of commercial river traffic, that has resulted in the funding decrease.

"It's a very low-use river," Hawk said. "It would take a lot of commercial traffic" to get the Allegheny River back on the radar of the federal government.

"That's just not very likely," he said of the possibility that commercial traffic would increase and the locks would reopen.

Even so, Logan said the Corps is working with a newly-formed local entity to determine ways that the locks may be able to remain open. The Allegheny River Development Corporation met for the first time last week as a task force to examine potential ways to get the locks rebooted possibly as some sort of public-private partnership.

The county commissioners sought interested residents to participate in the task force as a means to keep the facilities viable following the Corps' decision. There are some instances around the country in which agreements with nonprofits have been struck by the Corps. Those could be used as models and jumping off points for the county.

The key to keeping at least recreational usage at the locks is in the hands of the corporation as it continues work with the Corps.

"Is there anything out there we can do to get this service back?" Logan said.

The changes

The Allegheny River Service Reduction Plan is scheduled to be implemented on or about Oct. 23.

By the numbers

Allegheny River statistics from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

Renatta Signorini can be reached at or 724-543-1303, ext. 219.