Groups Traveling Uncharted Waters to Open Allegheny, Monongahela Locks

Kittanning Leader Times
20 September 2014
By Julie E. Martin
There's good news and bad news for two groups negotiating with the Army Corps of Engineers to open locks to recreational boat traffic on the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.

The good news is they are leading the way for groups around the country who want to contribute funds to operate federal locks. The bad news? Because it's never been done before, the process will likely be fraught with bureaucracy as the groups make their way through uncharted waters.

“What it really means to me is its going to take more time, which is something we just don't have,” said Corps engineer Lenna Hawkins.

Hawkins serves as a liaison between her agency and groups like the Allegheny River Development Corporation, the Armstrong County nonprofit that has been working to get the locks opened since they were closed in 2012.

ARDC and a similar group in West Virginia have a chance to have the locks opened on the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers next boating season.

ARDC estimates it can give $150,000 to cover lock operations on weekends, holidays and special events. The Upper Monongahela River Association in West Virginia plans to open locks on its river every other weekend for about $40,000 — funds it will get with help from counties in its region.

Federal budget cuts closed Armstrong County locks in Clinton, Kittanning, Mosgrove and Rimer in 2012. Two Upper Monongahela River locks near Morgantown suffered the same fate soon after. Both systems are open for commercial travel by appointment.

Both of the locked-out regions have experienced a drop in tourism and recreational business. Tourism analysis of the Pittsburgh region bears that out, according to ARDC President Linda Hemmes.

“The year locks closed, dining out dollars dropped by $400,000 in Armstrong County,” she said.

Likewise, the “Upper Mon” has felt the pain, said UMRA President Barry Pallay.

“Tournaments have been impaired. Boating has been impaired. It has harmed the number of passages and resulted in fishing tournaments and other events going elsewhere,” he said.

The Corps gave the two groups the go-ahead last month to use local funds for lock operations. They are waiting for a chance to negotiate with the Corps to determine how payments will be made. For instance, it's not been determined whether the private groups will pay directly, or if the money will have to be funneled through a board like county government on its way to the Corps.

Because such an agreement has never been reached, working out the details may take longer than expected, Hawkins said.

“Breaking new ground means people will be more conservative and looking into what the ramifications are,” she said.

“Since this is unique, more time will be spent assuring it is done correctly because this may be used again across the country.”

While details are being worked out, ARDC's focus remains on fundraising, boosted by recent news that state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, is trying to get a state transportation grant from PennDOT that would cover 75 percent of the cost of keeping the locks open next year.

If the agreement with the Corps can be worked out before next summer, locks will be opened as many times as the ARDC or UMRA can afford. Hemmes estimated it costs about $2,700 a day to operate the locks.

Hemmes said she has no doubt ARDC can raise enough funds with private contributions and membership drives to keep the locks open each weekend next season, even without the help of a state grant. She expects to pull donors from the 60-mile stretch of river between Pittsburgh and East Brady.

“My money's on there being $150,000 in the pockets of business, boaters and industry that want these locks open and operational during the recreational boating season,” she said. “I think it's going to require work, but I don't think it's insurmountable by any stretch.”

Julie E. Martin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1315 or

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