Lock Shutdown Shows Age of River System

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
30 August 2011
By Jon Schmitz

Anyone who has tried to find a part for a vintage appliance or car might sympathize with the Army Corps of Engineers.

When a flange broke on a hydraulic system at deteriorating Lock 6 on the Allegheny River in Armstrong County last week, the corps couldn't just traipse on down to Home Depot -- it had to fabricate a replacement part, causing the lock to be closed all weekend.

The corps expects to have the lock in service by Friday, in time for holiday boat traffic, spokesman Jeff Hawk said Monday.

"You can't pull these things off the shelf," he said of the needed part. "These are 80-year-old Depression-era locks."

The corps feared the hydraulic line, which helps to power the filling and draining of the lock chamber, might rupture, spilling oil.

The incident underscores an ongoing problem for the corps: a lack of adequate funding to upgrade its network of locks and dams, most of which are well past their useful lives.

The locks serve as elevators for river traffic, and the dams help to maintain water levels sufficient for navigation.

Lock 6, which opened in 1928 near Freeport, is one of eight on the Allegheny River that the corps operates and maintains. Six are rated in "poor" condition. Federal budget cuts of nearly 50 percent in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 have forced service and staffing cuts on the river.

The Allegheny is the least-traveled of the district's three main rivers, with an average of about 2,500 vessels per year from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2010, according to the corps. Traffic on the upper Ohio was nearly 5,500 vessels per year and on the Monongahela 3,300.

Mr. Hawk said the Allegheny was identified as a "low commercial use" river, exposing it to budget cuts as the Obama administration tries to focus funding on services that produce a higher return on investment.

Bill Heyer, lockmaster for Locks 5 to 9 on the Allegheny, said the Labor Day weekend is not as busy as around July 4 but said many recreational boaters are making their last runs of the season.

According to corps statistics, about 1,100 recreational boats and 200 commercial vessels use Lock 6 in an average year.

Crews were finishing scheduled maintenance of the facility when the cracked flange was discovered. "Everything we do is a fabrication," Mr. Heyer said of the repair. "It's hard to get parts for these old systems."

The corps said there is no money for repairs to the Allegheny River facilities in the coming year, and if machinery or components fail, it will not be able to fix them unless they pose a hazard to safety or public health.

The estimated cost to upgrade a single lock and dam is estimated at $83 million, while total federal funding available for the entire country in 2010 was only $118 million, said Charles DiPietro, transportation planning director for the 10-county Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.