Three Aging Dam/Lock Systems on Upper Ohio River in Pa. to Be Rehabbed in 2024View Source
A crane operator uses a crane-mounted drill to burrow holes into the current downstream concrete apron which will be filled with new concrete to form a secant wall at Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Monaca, Pa. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District manages the construction work at Montgomery, currently in the preconstruction phase. The current phase helps prepare the worksite for an upcoming multi-year construction project. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo).
More than $857 million from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will help fund the repair of Pennsylvania's three aging locks on the upper Ohio River to prevent failures that could result in a halt to river traffic.
The grant helps fund a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) contract to expand and replace the chambers at a trio of key facilities on the Ohio River and ensure the availability of water for municipal and industrial purposes as well as relieve traffic congestion.
Obtaining the money needed to upgrade the three locks, the oldest and smallest on the river, has been a top priority for state and federal lawmakers for decades as each structure has begun to show significant deterioration; in fact, one of the dam and lock systems is already leaking, according to the Center for American Progress, which added that there exists a 50 percent chance of the system failing by 2028.
Additionally, the upper Ohio River supports 76,500 jobs and its locks are key to the region's economy.
All three systems are located in the Pittsburgh region. They include:
- The Emsworth Locks and Dam, only 6 mi. northwest of downtown Pittsburgh, has been operational since 1922 while the original dams were rebuilt into gated structures, one on each side of Neville Island in the middle of the Ohio River. It features one lock for commercial barge traffic that is 600 ft. long by 110 ft. wide, and a recreational auxiliary lock measuring 360 ft. by 56 ft. Emsworth averages about 470 commercial lock throughs per month and 350 to 400 lock throughs monthly on the recreational auxiliary lock.
- The Dashields Lock and Dam opened in 1929 after a two-year-long construction. The fixed-crest dam is located 13 mi. downstream of Pittsburgh. It, too, has two locks, one for commercial barge traffic that is 600 ft. long by 110 ft wide, and the recreational auxiliary lock is 360 ft. long by 56 ft. wide. Dashields averages about 450 commercial lock throughs every month and 200 to 300 lock throughs a month on the recreational lock.
- Finally, situated 32 mi. downstream from the Steel City is the Montgomery Locks and Dam, which, like the others in the Pennsylvania system of Ohio River dams, has a pair of locks for commercial and recreational use, and encompasses the same dimensions. The Montgomery system averages around 300 commercial lock throughs every month and 150 lock throughs on the recreational auxiliary lock. Engineers, however, have discovered leakages within the 87-year-old Montgomery facility.
Mary Ann Bucci, the Port of Pittsburgh's executive director, told the Beaver County Times in 2022 that a crack was leaking water between the two walls of Montgomery's chambers.
"If that wall collapses, both chambers would be non-functional and you close the Port of Pittsburgh," she explained, adding such an event would also completely shut down regional commerce and could affect municipal drinking water.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the primary factors supporting the upper Ohio River navigation system project are the poor structural conditions and inadequate lock capacity for modern navigation tows on the waterway. With the Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery locks and dams being so old, they are reaching the end of their service lives. Built prior to air-entrained concrete, each facility experiences condition fatigue of the concrete causing unreliable structural integrity of the lock walls. The new structures, however, will meet modern design criteria.
Additionally, the current lock chamber sizes of each are now well below the size needed to accommodate the larger, more powerful modern barges that lock through the lower Ohio River. Many barges must "double-lock" through the upper Ohio's main chambers, which takes longer and causes more wear and tear on both the lock structure and operating machinery. The three undersized lock chambers in Pennsylvania also increase economic inefficiencies and, in the end, cost consumers more.
Work on the Montgomery system's project will include replacing the facility's 360-ft. auxiliary chamber with a wider and longer 600-ft. chamber that can fit up to nine barges at once. The district expects to begin work on the new lock construction in 2024, which will last at least eight years to complete.
Major Rehabilitations Ahead
The structural issues found at the three facilities were temporarily addressed during major rehabilitations undertaken in the 1980s and early ‘90s. These efforts were intended as stop-gap measures designed to extend the useful life of the dams and locks for another 25 years.
Given the effects of weathering and age, however, there were concerns over the continued reliability of the facilities, the USACE said. Anchoring and other temporary solutions were implemented to extend their life until more permanent repairs could be evaluated and implemented. The rehabilitation initiatives were limited in scope and were guided by expediency, considering lock closure time constraints, costs and feasibility.
The USACE reported that many known issues were only corrected in part; some were left untouched because repairs were found to be non-feasible, and others similarly were left uncorrected because they were not considered to be critical.
As an example, deteriorated concrete was left in place instead of being removed and was mostly covered over. Thus, while the top surface of the lock walls appears to be in good condition, hidden below that surface are most of the problems that have existed for years.
The Upper Ohio Navigation Project is part of the National Economic Development (NED) plan for improving navigation on that end of the river by replacing each auxiliary lock chamber with a new one almost doubling their size to 110 ft. by 600 ft. per facility, capable of fitting up to nine barges at once.
Following their completion, the finished structures would serve as the new main lock chamber for each dam and lock system.
"The Army Corps of Engineers has invested $934.7 million in funds across [Fiscal Year 2022 and Fiscal Year 2023] in the Upper Ohio Navigation System as part of a $2.1 billion project to upgrade the Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery locks and dams," said a statement released from the White House earlier this year. "Regionally, the larger project is expected to support more than 21,000 full time jobs. Transportation through Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery is expected to support another 3,800 full-time jobs annually."
The new lock chamber at Montgomery Locks and Dam received significant funding as part of the IIJA, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment Bill of 2021. The first preparatory construction contract for the Montgomery lock was awarded in 2020, with more contracts planned this year, and the awarding of the new lock chamber construction contract is scheduled to occur in 2024 and take as long as eight years to complete.