Shippers Welcome Lock, Dam Funding for Monongahela River Project

Pittsburgh Tribune Review
19 February 2015
By Bobby Kerlik

Consistent federal funding appears to be on the way for the long-delayed lower Monongahela River locks-and-dams project, a move applauded by river shippers who say some dams are in such bad shape it costs them time and money.

“We don't have a choice. If we're going to operate, we need locks and dams. Reliability is the key thing,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Campbell Transportation Co. in Washington County.

“We have lock delays continuously. We have to skinny our tows down at Charleroi from regular tows. We have to basically leave barges below, put them in smaller groups and then take them up three at a time — and then put them back together to (push) them six at a time.

“So it's like a bottleneck at Elizabeth and Charleroi. It's like going from a four-lane highway to two lanes.”

The Army Corps of Engineers agreed last month to pump $58 million into the Lower Mon project, and President Obama's 2016 budget allocated $52 million more. The project remains $1 billion short of the funding needed for completion, although officials are considering scaling back a portion of the project.
The Corps expected to finish the Lower Mon project within 10 years when work began in 1994. At the time, it was 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 2023.

The Braddock dam replacement is completed. The new money will go toward new lock construction at Charleroi, said Stephen Fritz, the Corps' project manager. Tweaks made by Congress in how federal money is doled out and an increase in the diesel tax paid by shippers from 20 cents a gallon to 29 cents have helped the Lower Mon project, Fritz said.

“It's provided a lot more consistent funding,” Fritz said. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, passed last year, changed how federal money comes out of a trust fund dedicated to waterway projects — particularly a $3 billion project to build a dam and locks along the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill. That project, which drained the trust fund before other projects could get money, will be funded at a lower rate.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, announced the funding changes Thursday aboard a boat of the Gateway Clipper Fleet at Station Square. Casey has pushed for the changes that he says will benefit shipping. Casey said problems with the locks cost businesses $220 million a year.

“Those are numbers we want to wipe away,” Casey said. “We know this system moves commodities not just here in Southwestern Pennsylvania but across the country.”

Barges carried 54.7 million tons of cargo through Monongahela River locks in 2012, up 11 percent from 2011, corps data show.

Many locks and dams in the Pittsburgh area were built in the 1930s or earlier, including the Elizabeth dam, which was built in 1907.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or