Jan. 19–About 40,000 ships, boats and barges pass through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks each year, making it the nation’s busiest lock system in overall traffic.
But the system more commonly known as the Ballard Locks — which allows vessels to pass between the saltwater of Puget Sound and freshwater of the Lake Washington Ship Canal — has gone more than 100 years without a comprehensive upgrade.
The machines used to raise and lower the water levels inside the Locks, for instance, have had to last since the Army Corps of Engineers installed them in 1917.
Workers must slather grease on the massive machines twice each week and are now using bungee cords to keep delicate parts calibrated until they can be replaced.
The system’s age is why the Locks have seen an increasing number of temporary shutdowns.
It’s why the system needs $30million to $60 million in major replacements and repairs, according to local Corps officials.
And it’s why Locks-dependent businesses and Seattle-area officials are making a sustained push for more attention from Washington, D.C., armed with a new way of gauging how valuable the Locks truly are despite moving less cargo than some other systems.
“An extended, unplanned closure of the ship canal and locks could have significant negative impacts for more than 200 businesses,” nine members of Washington’s congressional delegation said last month in a letter to Corps and budget officials.
The letter, whose signers included U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, further warned of a nightmare scenario in which the Locks cease to maintain the levels of Lake Washington and Lake Union about 20 feet above Puget Sound.
“Traffic on the Interstate 90 and State Route 520 floating bridges, the water and sewer systems that serve Mercer Island residents and approximately 75 miles of developed commercial, municipal and residential shoreline would be at risk.”
One reason the Locks are waiting on improvements is a “Value to the Nation” measurement used to set budget priorities for hundreds of water-transportation facilities operated by the Corps. It’s determined to a great extent by how much freight each system moves.
Though the Locks open and close more than other systems, fewer than one-fourth of those transits are made by commercial vessels, and many of those — such as fishing boats and tugs with Puget Sound rendezvous to make — carry no cargo at all.
The state of the Locks situation grew more grave in 2012, when the Corps lowered the system’s dam-safety rating. Then an emergency-closure crane failed a test.
Key to economy
Locks users were alarmed by the degradation but knew the Corps would be unlikely to change its Value to the Nation metric, which makes sense for systems dedicated to moving freight, such as those on the Mississippi River.
They needed another strategy.
So they commissioned a study of all the other ways the Locks contribute to economic activity. Funded by local governments, trade and labor organizations and businesses and released in June 2017, it says the Locks (besides moving 1 million tons of freight a year) support 200 businesses with gross sales of $1.2 billion a year.
For those businesses, the Locks serve as a garage door, providing access between the open ocean and a freshwater area where vessels are better stored and maintained.
The environment behind the Locks reduces repair costs and prolongs the lives of some 700 commercial and 4,000 recreational vessels, according to the study.
“The freshwater is key because it prevents deterioration,” said Charlie Costanzo, a vice president for the American Waterways Operators trade association. “A lot of these vessels are working in Alaska, in windblown saltwater, which corrodes steel.”
The greatest number of commercial vessels that pass through the Locks are towboats, following by fishing boats, passenger boats and government boats.
In 2016, according to the study prepared by the McDowell Group, 271 commercial fishing vessels — hailing from the Bering Sea Crab Fleet, Alaska Salmon Fleet, Puget Sound Fleet, among others, and including tribal fishing vessels — used the Locks 1,600 times and were responsible for an estimated $545 million in harvest revenues.
Also reliant on the Locks are shipyards, marine services, recreational-vessel sellers, towboat services, passenger-cruise companies and marinas, the study says. Business owners interviewed predicted a multimonth closure would result in massive layoffs.
“If the Locks were to go down unexpectedly at the start of a fishing season, that could be catastrophic,” Costanzo said.
Research vessels use the Locks, as do many law-enforcement agencies, while houseboat owners rely on the Locks to keep their homes afloat.
Not including the commercial-fishing industry, the study identified $120 million in payroll directly dependent on the Locks — equating that sum with 3,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, 1.25 million annual visits by tourists, schoolchildren and cruise passengers generate about $40 million in area spending each year, the study says.
Those visitors watch vessels navigate the Locks and salmon navigate a fish ladder, and they stroll through gardens that surround the historic site.
An engineering marvel when they were constructed, the Locks wreaked havoc with the natural environment while reshaping Seattle for commerce.
Some projects funded
The advocacy may be helping.
Though budgets for routine operations and maintenance have hovered around $8 million since 2011, the Locks have received nearly $13 million during that time for major projects, including $4.1 million in 2015 and $4 million in 2017.
The Corps has installed a new dewatering pump, replacing a century-old system, and money has been set aside for a new emergency-closure crane. But important needs remain, and maintenance needs are still increasing.
The water valves deep inside the mossy Locks are open and shut with a combination of antique gears and pulleys that date to World War I. When parts break, as they do regularly, the replacements must be custom-made.
“Nobody has this stuff on the shelf,” said Nate McGowan, operations manager.
Installing hydraulic valve machines at a cost of $10 million to $15 million tops a list of priority projects, and whether the Locks get that money anytime soon is mostly up to Corps brass and the federal Office of Management and Budget.
The amount is much less than the $50 million in federal funding Seattle is using to help build streetcar tracks down First Avenue downtown, and it’s couch-cushion change for the Corps, which has a $4.62 billion civil-works program budget.
But the Locks must compete with every other Corps-operated site, and the era in which a powerful senator like Murray could earmark the sum is gone, Costanzo said.
The owners of the megayachts that sometimes pass through the Locks could certainly afford tolls, but Costanzo’s organization is opposed to a pay-to-pass scheme.
The federal government must meet its responsibility to maintain the system, he said.
The plan instead is to make a lot of noise and keep up the racket past the Trump administration, he said.
This month, members of a Seattle City Council committee expressed support, asking how they could help. In August, the Sound Cities Association sent a letter to Corps officials signed by all 38 of its mayors, plus King County Executive Dow Constantine.
“We’d never gotten 38 cities to sign on to anything — ever,” said Kenmore Mayor David Baker, whose Lake Washington city is known for its concrete plant and an industrial port. “We all agree this has a lot of economic importance.”