River of Support: The Mon’s Lock-and-Dam Overhaul Gets a Boost

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
5 February 2015
By the Editorial Board

Work on the decaying locks and dams on the Monongahela River, already decades behind schedule, is getting a second major infusion of money in as many years, thanks largely to a change in federal law.

Sen. Bob Casey announced Monday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will invest $58 million in the project. The funding follows $74.6 million allotted for it last year.

Twenty-three years ago, Congress approved a project that would replace the locks and dams on the Monongahela at both Braddock and Charleroi. A new dam at Braddock was completed in 2004, but two new locks at Charleroi are yet to be built, along with dredging the river between the locations and removal of the locks and dam at Elizabeth. The work, which could cost $2.7 billion, is expected to take a decade or more.

Although it has long been the corps’ No. 2 priority, most of the available funds in years past have gone to its No. 1 concern, a project on the Ohio River in Olmsted, Ill.

Last year, Congress passed the Water Resources Reform Development Act, which included the River Act that Mr. Casey introduced. Before that, the cost of the Olmsted project was split 50-50 between the federal government and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, financed with taxes paid by the barge industry. Under the new law, 85 percent of that project’s funding now will come from the federal budget, freeing up more money from the trust fund for work on the Mon and elsewhere.

The barge industry also will be paying more in diesel fuel taxes, which were raised, with its consent, from 20 cents per gallon to 29 cents. Given that, the Waterways Council, which lobbies for the industry, is disappointed that the president did not request more in his 2016 budget for the nation’s river projects. The deterioration of the locks and dams on the Mon is not unique in the nation. Sixty percent of the corps’ 242 locks and related dams are older than 50 years, their projected lifespan.

Although it’s encouraging that more money has been directed toward this vital project, there’s a long way to go before the region has modern infrastructure in place to keep its river traffic flowing.