Obama proposal sets aside more funds for Mon River, Olmsted lock projects

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President Barack Obama's proposed fiscal 2015 budget includes $9 million for continuing long-delayed work on a vital lock and dam project on the Monongahela River, more than four times the funding it received in the current fiscal year.

The White House budget proposal also includes $160 million for continuing construction at an Ohio River infrastructure project plagued by massive cost overruns. Paying for that project, located about 600 miles down the Ohio from Pittsburgh at Olmsted, Ill., has prevented the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from providing additional funding for the Mon River work and other projects.

The barge industry and the federal government evenly split the cost of major lock and dam construction projects overseen by the Corps. The industry's share is generated by a tax barge operators pay on the diesel fuel they use.

But river industry officials have complained about covering cost overruns at Olmsted, where the price tag has ballooned from $775 million when Congress authorized the project in 1988 to $3.1 billion.

More than half of the 200-plus locks and associated dams overseen by the Corps were built more than 50 years ago, which is how long they were expected to last. The aging infrastructure is unreliable and breaks down more often. That leads to lengthy delays and raises the costs of moving about 550 million tons of grain, coal and other commodities shipped on the nation's rivers each year.

The Mon River project would eliminate a 107-year-old dam at Elizabeth that the Corps has warned is in danger of collapsing. If it fails, that would bring river traffic to a halt and prevent water companies and other users from drawing water from the river. The lock at Charleroi also is deteriorating, Corps officials said.

In 1992, Congress authorized eliminating the Elizabeth dam and updating dams and locks at Braddock and Charleroi. The cost of the project was estimated at $750 million and was supposed to be completed in 2004.

Work at Braddock has been completed, but the overall project is now expected to cost $1.7 billion and is not expected to be completed until 2030 or later.

There is an effort afoot to provide additional funding by raising the diesel tax barge operators pay.

The barge industry supports increasing the tax, which has been 20 cents per gallon since 1995, to 26 or 29 cents per gallon. The tax overhaul measure introduced last week by Dave Camp, R-Mich., House Ways and Means Committee chairman, proposes raising it to 26 cents.

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

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