Delays in lock and dam repairs jeopardize river economy and water supply, lawmakers say




Two Republican lawmakers urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wednesday to move forward with a $2.3 billion project to replace three sets of Depression-era locks and dams at the head of the Ohio River, saying their crumbling condition hurts the competitiveness of the region’s economy.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said the Corps has spent $17 million since 2003 studying what to do about locks and dams at Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery.

If the Corps doesn’t sign off on the project soon, it will not be included in legislation this year that will authorize new river infrastructure projects, they said. Since Congress only considers those projects every two years, that would mean two more years of bureaucratic delays that Mr. Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Mr. Rothfus said must be avoided.

“We have been waiting now for close to 13 years and $17 million to get this study done,” Mr. Rothfus said at a news conference at the Emsworth lock and dam.

Barge operators say the older locks and dams are, the more often they must be closed for emergency repairs — resulting in costly delays to barge shipments. Mr. Rothfus said there is a 50 percent chance that a lock or dam at one of the three Ohio River sites will fail by 2028. That would bring river traffic to a halt and jeopardize the water supply of thousands of residents who depend on water drawn from the river.

“That’s why this project is so important,” Mr. Rothfus said. “We need the Army Corps to complete this study and the administration to move forward.”

Mr. Shuster said he suspects the delay in authorizing the work is “a back handed” part of President Barack Obama’s war on the coal industry.

Coal is one of the major commodities shipped on the river system, accounting for about 70 percent of the 31.5 million tons that moved on the Pittsburgh region’s rivers in 2014.

Mr. Shuster said his committee will look into ways to authorize the project if the Corps fails to act in time.

The problems at the Emsworth facility as well as at Dashields, located farther down the river near Aliquippa, and Montgomery, located near Monaca, are typical of the dilapidated condition of many of the locks and dams situated on about 12,000 miles of U.S. rivers. Much of the problem is blamed on funding delays, which has led to massive cost overruns.

The consequences can be seen on the lower Monongahela River.

Congress authorized a $750 million project in 1992 that was originally slated to replace locks and dams at Braddock, Charleroi and Elizabeth by 2004. Depending on how well the new project is funded and which of the improvements originally called for are made, the work is expected to cost between $1.2 billion and $2.7 billion and will be completed anywhere from 2023 to 2060, according to Corps officials.

Congress gave the system a shot in the arm by raising a diesel fuel tax barge operators pay from 20 cents a gallon to 29 cents. Revenue from the fund pays for half of major river projects, such as the work envisioned for the three Ohio River sites. The other half comes from federal taxpayers.

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.

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