Lower Monongahela River Locks, Dam Project Nears Top Priority in Congress

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
20 June 2013

By Tom Fontaine
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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 District.

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 billion.

“Construction is slow. We can only do a little bit each year,” Majewski said.

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 Commission.

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 money.

“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 amendment.

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 tfontaine@tribweb.com.