Lower Monongahela River Locks, Dam Project Nears Top Priority in
20 June 2013
By Tom Fontaine
Staff Reporter Tom Fontaine can be reached at 412-320-7847
A critical Monongahela River project that is 10 years behind
schedule and nearly $1 billion over budget could receive money
through legislation Congress is considering.
“It could help us catch up on work that should have been completed
a long time ago,” said Susanne Majewski, acting chief of programs
and project management for the Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh
Barges carried 54.7 million tons of cargo through Monongahela
River locks last year, up 11 percent from 2011, Corps data show.
The Corps expected to finish the Lower Monongahela River project
within 10 years when work began in 1994 on what was then a $750
million project to remove the locks and dam in Elizabeth, replace
a dam in Braddock and build locks in Charleroi.
Funding shortfalls and delays postponed the projected completion
date to at least 2025. The work will cost an estimated $1.7
“Construction is slow. We can only do a little bit each year,”
Corps data show the Lower Mon project has received about $108.5
million over the last five years, including $67.7 million in
federal stimulus money.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, headed by
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, is debating a bill that
passed the Senate last month. It would make work on the Lower Mon
a higher priority than an Ohio River project in Illinois. The
committee could send a version to the full House this summer.
Closures at a low point
Many locks and dams in the Pittsburgh area were built in the
1930s or earlier, and they show their age. Inspectors have
documented crumbling concrete walls and malfunctioning gates.
Pete Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Campbell Transportation Co.
Inc., which operates 36 vessels with 500 barges on the Ohio,
toured the 77-year-old Montgomery Locks and Dam in Beaver County
on Saturday, a day after its main lock chamber reopened as a
result of two weeks of repairs.
The work diverted river traffic to an auxiliary lock, “regularly
causing delays of 30 hours or more” because shipments with dozens
of barges had to be broken to fit the smaller chamber and then
reassembled, Stephaich said.
“We saw a big crack in a wall between the chambers that had water
coming out of it,” Stephaich said. “That just shows you the
physical state of these facilities.”
Equipment failures, flooding, emergency repairs and other problems
caused 165 unscheduled closures of locks on the Pittsburgh area's
rivers last year — the lowest total since 1992, according to the
corps. Annual closures totaled 470 to 691 in the previous five
years, data show.
“We are concerned that this sharp drop may reflect some things
that used to get fixed simply aren't getting fixed,” said Jim
McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh
The corps “refocused our maintenance efforts in 2011,” investing
heavily in hydraulic equipment that contributed to many unexpected
closures, spokeswoman Sheila Tunney said.
Targeting trust money
The Corps annually spends about $170 million on major projects
on locks and dams. Half of the money comes from the government;
the other half, from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which
collects a 20 cents-per-gallon diesel fuel tax from commercial
users of the waterways.
About $150 million a year goes toward a $3 billion project to
build a dam and locks along the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill. The
Senate bill would stop funding the Olmsted project with trust fund
“This moves the Lower Monongahela lock-and-dam replacement project
to the top of the list of projects funded by the Inland Waterways
Trust Fund and allows it to receive significantly more funding,”
said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who introduced the
A House Transportation Committee spokesman did not say whether its
version would include a similar provision, and Majewski could not
predict how much money the change would generate each year for the
Lower Mon project.
“They could probably spend $100 million a year,” said McCarville.
Majewski said the corps is “completing design work on future
improvements so we can position ourselves to be ready to go if
additional funding does materialize.”
Debra Colbert, spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy
group Waterways Council Inc., is encouraged by the legislation but
said Congress needs to increase the commercial diesel fuel tax to
raise money for major projects.
Colbert said the industry supports an increase of up to 45
percent, or 9 cents per gallon. That would generate almost $40
million for the trust fund and, when matched by the government,
$80 million for projects.
Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached
at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.