Lack of Funding for Locks Promises More River Traffic Snarls

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
31 May 2011
By Tom Fontaine

Equipment failures, flooding and other problems caused 475 unscheduled closures of locks on Pittsburgh-area rivers last year, blocking passages critical to shippers for almost 9,500 hours combined, federal statistics show.

Such shutdowns continue on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers this year, disrupting companies' supply lines and increasing delivery costs that ultimately could hit consumers, say industry leaders and government officials. All this happens as shipping on the nation's inland and coastal waterways picks up.

"You have a lot of problems in Pittsburgh," Debra Colbert, spokeswoman for Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group Waterways Council Inc., said about the region's locks and dams.

Reduced funding could mean conditions will worsen in the Pittsburgh region, home to the nation's second-busiest inland port and 20th busiest overall in 2009. That year, the most recent for which port data are available, 32.9 million tons of goods valued at $3 billion moved through, three-quarters of it coal, according to federal and Waterways Council statistics.

"We have the oldest facilities in the entire inland navigation system, but right now we're striking a very delicate balance," said Lenna Hawkins, deputy engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers' Pittsburgh district, which oversees 23 locks and dams. "We want to have a reliable system, but we have increasingly limited funds available to do that."

The average age a lock in the United States is almost 60 years, the American Society of Civil Engineers said. Locally, the 33 main and auxiliary lock chambers have an average age of 68.

Two dozen of those chambers are more than 50 years old, the designed life expectancy for such facilities. Four lock chambers on the Monongahela are at least 100 years old.

President Obama's proposed 2012 budget would slash by more than 15 percent funding to the corps to operate and maintain the region's river navigation system, from $52 million this fiscal year to $44 million.

The most noticeable changes would be on the Allegheny, where the Army Corps plans on Oct. 1 to close locks and dams No. 8 in Templeton and No. 9 in Rimer to recreational boats and end 24-hour service between locks and dams No. 2 in Highland Park and No. 4 in Natrona.

Hawkins said funding planned for major projects would amount to "drops of money."

The ongoing Lower Monongahela River project, for example, started in 1994 and was to be a $750 million, 10-year project. Its costs ballooned to $1.7 billion because of funding problems and delays, and it's not scheduled for completion until 2025.

Next year it will get $1 million, Hawkins said, although its funding is expected to increase in 2017 after a $2.1 billion project in Olmsted, Ill., is done.

Marty Hettel, who oversees coal deliveries for St. Louis-based AEP River Operations, one of the industry's large shippers, said the Lower Mon and Olmsted projects symbolize today's problems. The latter began in the early 1990s as a $775 million project, but will cost more than $2 billion.

"These projects drag on and on, and costs soar," Hettel said.

Unscheduled lock closures inflate costs to taxpayers and private companies.

The Army corps schedules closures for planned construction and maintenance at least two years in advance, giving companies time to alter shipping arrangements. Unscheduled closures can wreak havoc -- particularly at the 13 facilities on the Monongahela and Allegheny with only one lock chamber, such as the C.W. Bill Young Lock and Dam between Harmar and Plum.

"That basically closes the river," said Jim McCarville, executive director with the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

An unanticipated shutdown of the main and auxiliary chambers at the Monongahela's Braddock Locks and Dam would cost the towing industry $11,000 an hour, according to the corps.

At C.W. Bill Young, unscheduled shutdowns prevented the 565-megawatt Cheswick Generating Station in Springdale from receiving some coal deliveries by barge, according to officials with the Army Corps and Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc., which supplies coal to the plant.

The corps scheduled a shutdown of the 77-year-old Harmar lock and dam from May 3 through last Friday for needed repairs. But high water delayed repairs on a lock gate. The agency expects to finish on Wednesday.

With the extended shutdown, the power plant's stockpile of coal dwindled to about 10 days' worth. It typically keeps enough for 30 to 45 days.

A spokesman for GenOn Energy, which owns the plant, said it would maintain service by trucking in coal. He said that would drive up costs, but did not say by how much. The Army Corps said the delays would add $220,000 to the $1.7 million cost of the gate repairs.

Such closures are the last thing the industry needs.

"We are in the midst of (an economic) recovery," McCarville said, pointing to a 24 percent increase in local barge traffic from July through January.

Traffic recently dipped because of high water, but the corps said 153.2 million tons of goods moved along inland waterways in this year's first four months, up from 148.6 million tons during the period last year and 141.9 million tons in 2009.

Despite time lost to unscheduled shutdowns last year -- the equivalent of almost 400 days -- it was the district's lowest total of out-of-service time since 2003, when lock outages added up to 4,804 hours. Combined lost hours ranged from 11,246 to 15,834 between 2004 and 2009. McCarville called last year's seven-year low an "anomaly."

Grech said unscheduled shutdowns are troubling.

"They are a warning sign that something very, very bad is just waiting to happen," he said. "Shutdowns are bad for business, but if we completely lose a lock or a dam it could be a disaster."

An industry proposal to boost money for locks and dams includes raising federal fuel taxes imposed on companies that move goods along rivers by 6 to 9 cents a gallon, up from 20 cents a gallon. That could increase a fund that helps pay for improvements to $110 million a year, from about $75 million to $85 million a year.

The plan seeks $270 million a year from the government, an increase of about $200 million annually over current levels.

Colbert said the plan, which hasn't gained traction in Washington, would enable crews to tackle 25 major navigation projects, instead of six, over the next 20 years.

Tom Fontaine can be reached at or 412-320-7847.