Congress Authorizes More Spending on Key Ohio River Project
18 October 2013
By Len Boselovic
The congressional resolution ending the 16-day partial shutdown of
the federal government also prevented another shutdown at a
long-delayed, over-budget Ohio River project that has postponed
much needed modernization of locks and dams on the Monongahela
River in Pittsburgh.
The provision, passed Wednesday, raises the amount of money that
Congress can authorize for the project near Olmsted, Ill., from
$1.7 billion to $2.9 billion. It does not provide the actual money
to do that. Congress will have to take a separate vote to do that.
The Olmsted project, located about 600 miles down the Ohio from
Pittsburgh, is the top priority of the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, which operates and maintains about 200 locks and
related dams on the nation's rivers. Olmsted has been receiving
the bulk of $170 million in federal funding that the Corps
receives annually for major river infrastructure projects.
That's meant there has been very little money to complete the
replacement of aging locks and dams on the Mon, including
eliminating a 106-year-old dam at Elizabeth.
Funding shortfalls have driven up the cost of the Pennsylvania
project, authorized by Congress in 1992 at an estimated cost of
$750 million. Originally expected to be completed in 2004, the
lower Mon work is now estimated to cost about $1.7 billion and not
be completed until 2033.
Meanwhile, the Olmsted project, authorized in 1988 at an estimated
cost of $775 million, is expected to cost about $3.1 billion.
Congress must reauthorize river projects once they exceed 120
percent of their original cost estimate. Olmsted was bumping up
against that $1.7 billion ceiling, having spent about $1.6 billion
so far, according to Corps spokesman Jon Fleshman.
Legislation approved by the Senate in May and a separate measure
expected to be put to a vote in the House next week would increase
the authorization for Olmsted.
But the bills do not agree on the size of the increase and those
differences were not expected to be resolved before next month,
when the project would halt after hitting the $1.7 billion limit.
Once stopped, restarting the work would have added another $40
million to the price tag, according to the Corps.
One taxpayer watchdog group called the maneuver raising the
authorization for Olmsted "parochial pork." Taxpayers for Common
Sense said the lawmaker apparently behind it was Senate Minority
Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The Olmsted project spans the Ohio
between Kentucky and Illinois.
Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington, D.C. taxpayer
group, said: "While this could be considered business as usual, it
is shocking that with the country teetering on the edge of the
default, a lawmaker would try to pull a fast one on the American
Mr. McConnell could not be reached for comment.
Both the Senate and House bills addressing the Olmsted issue call
for changing how river infrastructure projects are funded and
break a backlog of projects that are years behind schedule and
millions of dollars over budget. The antiquated infrastructure
breaks down and is hard to maintain, resulting in costly delays in
moving about 550 million tons of coal, grain and other commodities
on the nation's rivers each year.
The Senate and House bills propose shifting more of Olmsted's cost
to the federal government. Half of the money currently comes from
a diesel fuel that tax barge operators pay. The House version
calls for diesel tax paying 25 percent of Olmsted's cost. The
Senate version, approved in May, would shift the entire cost to
the federal government.
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941.