Open Allegheny River Locks 'a Huge Success'

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
8 October 2016
By Mary Ann Thomas

Every other weekend this summer, Mike Ferris piloted his 52-foot Carver Californian from his Allegheny River dock in Godfrey, Gilpin Township, through two locks to meet friends at a boaters hangout, a river inlet known as the Kittanning Cove in East Franklin.

The Ferrises didn't take much food because they prefer to dock and eat at local restaurants.

Ferris and other boaters hope to make that and many more river journeys next year because of a first-of-its-kind agreement between the Army Corps of Engineers and a local nonprofit to operate the locks for pleasure crafts.

The Allegheny River Development Corp. just completed its second year of a public-private partnership to raise funds to pay the Corps of Engineers to operate the four upper locks in Armstrong County on the Allegheny River.

But the money had to be funneled through Armstrong County because of a federal mandate that the Army Corps can enter into such agreements only with another governing body.

The Water Resources and Development Act of 2014 changes that for the better, according to all parties. Under the law, the Army Corps now can deal directly with nonprofits like Allegheny River Development.

The arrangement bodes well for the future operation of those locks, which would be closed without the public-private partnership.

“This is a huge success story for the region,” said Mary Ann Bucci, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, which oversees and promotes the development of the nation's second-busiest inland port.

“ARDC did a wonderful job taking advantage of that legislation,” she said. “This allows people to engage the corps to have those additional lockages.”

The open locks in Armstrong are important to the region's entire water navigation system, she said. That's 11,000 miles of navigable waters from the Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

“You don't want to sever any of that,” she said.

The Corps of Engineers closed Locks 6 through 9 in South Buffalo, West Kittanning, Boggs and Madison townships, respectively, to recreational boaters during the past four years because of scant commercial traffic, which determines federal funding.

The ability to contract directly with the Army Corps changes that, said Linda Hemmes, president of the Allegheny River Development Corp.

“It's clean, clear and simple and eliminates any politics,” she said.

Armstrong County Commissioner Jason Renshaw concurred: “It's great those two organizations will work together. We were the middlemen.”

As for the Corps of Engineers, which operates the locks and dams in the U.S. inland water navigation system, the arrangement is a positive step to deal with its aging, low-use locks that have lost value in the eyes of the federal government.

“We have aging infrastructure that no longer maintains a federal interest in operating it,” said Jeff Hawk, spokesman for the Army Corps in Pittsburgh.

“We have to reach out to those still interested in using those facilities and try to figure out how best to work that out,” he said.

Rocking The Locks

“I didn't make it to Brady's Bend this year,” Ferris lamented of the nearly 40-mile sojourn passing through four locks from Gilpin.

“I'd rather go for two nights. It's more fun that way,” he said.

Apparently, so would other boaters, and this is the challenge holding them back from visiting the upper Allegheny pools, notably Kittanning with its riverfront park and amphitheater.

When ARDC first reopened the locks last year, pent-up demand brought out hundreds of boaters.

“They rocked the locks that weekend,” said Ferris, who is on the ARDC board.

But promoters didn't have that level of success for a single event this year.

Total lockages — a single boat passing through a single lock — slipped by nearly 4 percent in 2016, with 1,514 last year and 1,458 lockages this year at the ARDC's Armstrong County locks, according to the Army Corps.

By comparison, Lock 2 at Highland Park — historically the busiest recreational lock in the Corps of Engineers' Pittsburgh District — saw a 1.3 percent increase from 1,936 to 1,961 during the same time.

What concerns the ARDC and others was that the greatest decline in Armstrong lock usage was 14 percent at Lock 6, which means the region is attracting fewer boaters from downstream.

Distance and marketing seem to be the problems.

Hemmes said it takes seven hours to boat from her slip at the Kittanning Marina to the Point in Pittsburgh, making an overnight stay appealing, if not necessary.

The boaters are there, ARDC members said, but it's a matter of informing and persuading them to visit Armstrong County for a long weekend.

ARDC is proposing to keep the locks open for more three- and four-day weekends, Hemmes said.

It will cost more, driving the cost of keeping the locks open from $187,200 this year to a proposed $230,000 next year, Hemmes said.

Marketing Armstrong County

Promoting what the county has to offer to the boating community is part of a larger marketing challenge for the scenic but economically beleaguered region.

Hemmes and others want Armstrong to become a boater destination with its lush, undeveloped rolling hills and the cleanest water hosting the greatest concentration of bald eagles in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“The upper Allegheny is quiet and it's much more laid back and mellow than Pittsburgh,” Hemmes said.

Tourism is one the county's major draws and “the river is one of our biggest assets,” Commissioner Renshaw said.

State Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, who in the last two years secured state grants to pay for three-quarters of ARDC's funding, said he has tapped out the funds for the lock operations.

“Those were one-time grants from the Department of Transportation and the Commonwealth Finance Agency,” he said

Pyle wants to see the county step up efforts to raise money for the locks.

“We know when the locks are open, tourist money goes up,” he said. “It seems that would be a good investment on the county's behalf.”

Hemmes wants to see more boat traffic going up and down the Allegheny River. But competition for boaters' dollars is fierce. Kittanning's first regatta this year after a 20-year hiatus was up against everything from Pittsburgh Pirates games to concerts like Kenny Chesney.

“As far as expecting to get Pittsburgh traffic every weekend, that's not going to happen,” said Lynda Pozzuto of Rayburn Township, vice president of events for the Alle Kiski Strong Chamber of Commerce.
She has been boating all of her life and owns a 38-foot houseboat and other watercraft, including a restored 1968 Marinette Cruiser.

“Community events drew a lot of boaters,” she said, citing the 2013 live concert of Pittsburgh rockers The Clarks as drawing the largest crowd in recent memory to Kittanning's Riverfront Park.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or