Casey Makes a Case to Fix Locks and Dams

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
21 April 2012
By Kaitlynn Riely

It's easy to get people passionate about fixing potholes on the street. Getting them invested in fixing river locks and dams is a lot harder.

But Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey is trying.

"It's up to me and other elected officials to make the case, to make people aware of the value of these locks and dams, and the impact on their lives, by way of jobs and commerce," he said.

Mr. Casey spoke Friday morning at the Gateway Clipper Fleet in Station Square, where he urged Congress to provide funding for the region's locks and dams. He called rehabilitation of the infrastructure "an important investment" in the future of the region, which has long benefited from its rivers.

"The failure to invest in these advantages, in these projects, will have a devastating effect on this region now and, more importantly, over time," he said.

Mr. Casey, a Democrat, called on the Senate Appropriations Committee to include in the final budget $36.5 million for upgrading locks and dams on the Monongahela River and $20.4 million for infrastructure on the Ohio River, the funding amounts requested by the Obama administration.

He made his remarks to representatives of the local and national river transportation industry. Standing on the upper deck of The Empress, Mr. Casey stood near the spot where the Allegheny and Monongahela converge to form the Ohio.

For America's river infrastructure system, the crisis Mr. Casey described extends well beyond the Point. An official with the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the system, has said the waterways are headed toward catastrophe.

The more than 200 locks on the country's rivers were built to last 50 years, and nearly 60 percent of them are still operating beyond their useful life, kept operating by patchwork efforts by the Corps.

About 40 percent of the 89 locks in the Corps' Great Lakes and Ohio division, which includes Pittsburgh, are more than 70 years old. Many of these aged locks are in Western Pennsylvania, where 33 million tons of coal, petroleum and other commodities pass through the region's 23 locks and dams each year.

Failure of the 105-year-old locks and dam at Elizabeth or the Depression-era Charleroi lock could shut down river traffic on the Monongahela River for months, an outcome that could have costly consequences for businesses and consumers, especially in terms of electricity rates.

Congress has authorized $8 billion in projects that would replace or rehabilitate aging river infrastructure. But it has not fully funded the projects. The piecemeal funding the projects receive generates significant cost overruns and construction delays.

Mr. Casey, in his remarks, referred to a study that showed nearly 220,000 jobs in the region are supported by waterway activity.

"This is about jobs. It's about the future," he said. "It's about our ability to be competitive in Western Pennsylvania."

The amount needed to safeguard the waterway infrastructure in the Pittsburgh region -- about $57 million -- is a "reasonable request," he said.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.