In the News

Pittsburgh region’s locks and dams, crucial to commodity transportation, struggle for funding and recognition

August 13, 2023   Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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For many Pittsburghers, the spot where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers converge to form the Ohio River is a place of tranquil beauty, good for boating, fishing, biking and moonlit strolls around the fountain.


Away from the Point, however, the rivers are much more than that — they are a conduit for bulk materials such as coal, petroleum products, chemicals and other goods that keep the country running and put people to work.


Keeping that liquid highway open depends on the system of locks and dams that provide flood protection and allow towboats to navigate up and down the rivers, pushing long strings of barges. But that system continues to slowly crumble, presenting expensive and unique issues for the federal government, transportation companies and commerce in general, not only in Pittsburgh but the entire nation.


Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Waterways Council Inc., Campbell Transportation Co. and other organizations provided a series of trips on the rivers so elected officials and stakeholders could see for themselves how the locks and dams are aging and explain federal efforts to repair and upgrade them.


The trips highlighted projects that have received a much-needed financial boost from the federal government in recent years, thanks to a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021.


For Dustin Davidson, director of government relations at the Waterways Council, a national organization that advocates for modern and well-maintained inland waterways, raising public awareness about the locks and dam system is vital.


“When you look at it, all of these facilities are in very rural communities,” Mr. Davidson said. “So unless you’re fishing near these structures, or you work on the river, you don’t see them. So it’s all about taking people out here and getting eyes on it.”


There are 17 locks and dams within the Port of Pittsburgh, which oversees about 200 miles of commercially navigable waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania. Maintaining them is an important but costly task. Some date back to the early 20th century and haven’t seen major improvements since then.


A towboat pushing 15 barges can haul as much as 1,050 semi-trailer trucks, and moving that same amount of cargo by truck leads to a 1000% increase in emissions, according to data provided by the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.


Pennsylvania’s waterways, ports and related industries also support about 248,000 jobs and generate $19.3 billion in personal income and $4.3 billion in state and local tax revenue each year.


“We just want to send the message out that you’ve got a great resource here, and one that the country was built on, frankly,” said Richard Kreider, vice president of logistics for Campbell Transportation, the largest marine transportation company in the region..

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A little history


The oldest in the system, according to the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, is Lock and Dam 3, built near Elizabeth on the Monongahela River in 1907. The locks were installed in 1905 but the accompanying dam was not built until 2004.


Many of the other locks and dams were built in the 1920s and 1930s and are in need of constant repair, maintenance or overall improvement, projects that can cost billions.


Concrete used in the construction of the locks and dams is deteriorating, Peter Stephaich, CEO of Campbell Transportation, said during one of the trips last week.


“The wood, which is 100-plus years [old] is fine, but you can reach in and grab the concrete and it will do this in your hands,” said Mr. Stephaich, motioning like he was molding clay.


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported, in a series of stories in years past, that many of the locks and dams haven’t seen sufficient modernization or replacement work in decades. The locks were designed to last 50 years, officials say—and many are decades older than that.


On Friday, groundbreaking was held on a project to increase the lock capacity at Montgomery, along the Ohio River in Beaver County. That type of expansion is important, but even if projects don’t add capacity, each individual lock and dam is important to the entire system, Mr. Stephaich said.


“These projects are not [only] done for the volume, they’re done because if we don’t replace them, we’re going to lose the whole system,” he said.


What projects are next in line?


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is focusing on two huge endeavors:


* The Monongahela River Locks and Dams 2, 3, and 4 Project, facilities at Braddock, Elizabeth and Charleroi, at a cost of about $2.8 billion. The project seeks to remove Dam 3, build a new dam at Dam 2, which was completed in 2004, and construct larger lock chambers at Dam 4.


* The Upper Ohio Restoration Project, facilities at Montgomery, Dashields, and Emsworth, at a cost of about $3.2 billion. The project’s aim is to provide roughly double the lock capacity for towboats so they can more efficiently handle barge traffic. For example, the Montgomery Locks and Dam has one chamber that measures 110 feet by 600 feet, and another of only 56 feet by 360 feet. The project would create two chambers of 110 by 600 feet.


In 2021, Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that allocated $2.5 billion for the entire system across the United States. The Upper Ohio project has received more than $900 million from that bill, for the projects at Montgomery and Emsworth.


Such projects also receive appropriations from the federal government, according to Stephen Fritz, the Mega Projects manager for the Corps of Engineers. To date, the Monongahela River project has been allocated nearly $1.2 billion; the most recent allocation was $111 million, in fiscal 2020.


The Corps of Engineers determines how much money is needed for certain parts of a project; it is Congress that eventually decides how much to allocate.


"Everybody in Congress doesn't often give you enough money to finish something, especially if it's very expensive," Mr. Fritz said. "They didn't give us $1.2 billion to start with, they give us piece after piece after piece."


Dan Lacek, vice president of operations at Campbell Transportation, said it’s also important to consider how much the industry pays for general upkeep of the system. Companies like Campbell Transportation pay taxes on fuel that they burn on federal waterways, which then are collected by the U.S. Treasury to help pay for projects. Tens of millions of dollars are collected annually for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Conversely, recreational boats don’t pay to pass through locks, he said.


There are consequences for not updating the system. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said as much at a news conference Friday for groundbreaking to begin the work at the Montgomery Locks and Dam.


“We cannot allow this system to fail,” Mr. Casey said. “Too many lives, too many jobs, too many opportunities depend upon the investment that we’re making.”


Col. Nicholas Melin, commander of the Pittsburgh District of the Corps of Engineers, said after the Montgomery Locks and Dam groundbreaking that the bipartisan infrastructure bill has helped the corps with that project and others in the region. Projects such as Montgomery not only expand capacity, but they also modernize the system so it is more efficient and experiences fewer breakdowns, he said.


And timing is important, the officials said. Project delays cost money—inflation increases their costs in the long term. If a project gets drawn out over 10 to 20 years, that can increase the bottom line by hundreds of millions of dollars.


Looking ahead


The inland waterway system will remain a vital economic engine and job creator for regions along major rivers far into the future, officials say.


That means locks and dams from a towboat’s starting point to its final destination must be kept in good repair.


“They get busier as you get down the river, because there’s more volume going through. But I view the smaller, upper-end locks — those are the feeders,” said Mr. Kreider of Campbell Transportation. “All of those cargos have to come from somewhere, and if you lose that infrastructure and shrink the volume down, it will become a death spiral.”