Eclipse of Reason: Crescent and the Corps Must Reach a Locks Deal

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
21 May 2012

Crescent Township, which got its name from being spun off from Moon Township long ago, is a small community that prides itself on its hometown feel. Its history owes much to its location on the Ohio River as the site of early boat building.

Now it finds itself at the center of a depressing dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers involving the very river that was a reason for its founding. Both sides feel wronged -- and their problem is Western Pennsylvania's problem, so vital are the stakes.

Crescent Township is home to the Dashields Lock, which like many old locks and dams in this area, needs repairs to keep functioning.

The Corps had scraped up $3.1 million, no easy task in today's fiscal climate, to stabilize a lock wall so it won't collapse into the river. The project has already been delayed a year and the Corps says that if it is not done it will be left on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate the contractor.

But the Corps and Crescent can't agree on a plan to fix a rain-damaged township road that leads to the lock and Shouse Park (as it happens, named for a pioneer boat builder). The Corps is prepared to take over the road and repair it at a cost of at least $250,000, leaving Crescent obligated only to clear the road of snow in the winter.

It would seem a good deal for a 2.3-square-mile township with an annual budget of only $1.6 million. But the Corps wants permission to close the park for unspecified lengths of time and use it as a staging area during rehabilitation of the lock.

That is too much for township officials, who don't want to lose their park for months on end and who complain of being yanked around by the Corps' changing positions over months of negotiations. (As proof, they cite a memorandum of understanding between the parties last December that they say would have solved the problem). Last Tuesday, Crescent's board of commissioners unanimously voted down the Corps' latest offer.

Corps spokesman Jeff Hawk told the Post-Gazette, "We're beyond frustrated to stunned. We're done unless they make some extraordinary gesture." Township solicitor Richard F. Start replied: "If he is stunned and shocked, his stun and shock pales compared with ours."

It would test King Solomon to determine who is being more difficult. But basic principles can be a guide to how it should be viewed. Locks and dams are vital to the continuing prosperity of this region. Small communities have an obligation to their neighbors to do what they can to help (although to be fair to Crescent, its officials say they have tried).

As we have long complained, it is ridiculous that Allegheny County has 130 municipalities and that many of them go their own way, independent of the greater good. For one small community to have, in effect, veto power over an urgently needed project is as absurd as a mouse stopping the progress of an elephant. This episode bolsters the argument for metropolitan government.

To be sure, the park is a legitimate concern for the township, but then so should be the repair of a piece of infrastructure vital to the whole region. If river traffic stops, hundreds of jobs stop with it.

Besides, the Corps may not have a need to close the park for 20 years, if at all, depending on when the lock faces reconstruction. The final absurdity is that the park, due to the damaged road, has been closed for a year anyway.

Both parties -- the township that prides itself on its hometown feel and the government agency proud of its work -- have a motive for making an extraordinary gesture. Both need to give a little to gain a lot for everybody.