Congress Authorizes More Spending on Key Ohio River Project

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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 people."

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: or 412-263-1941.