The 107-year-old locks and dam on the Monongahela River at Elizabeth were supposed to be gone long ago, replaced by more modern locks and dams at Braddock and Charleroi as part of a $750 million project approved by Congress in 1992.
But funding delays and cost overruns at other river projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mean the project is now expected to cost $2.7 billion. Originally scheduled to be completed in 2004, the project may not be finished for another decade or longer.
Industry officials and Congressional staffers got a first-hand look at the funding hole Friday as Corps officials took them down into the dewatered bottom of one of Elizabeth‘s two locks, where $3 million in repairs are being made to lock gates and valves used to empty the chamber. A similar project was completed at a cost of $2 million in 2006, two years after Elizabeth’s locks and dam were to have been removed.
“We’re hoping this is the last time, but that’s what we thought in 2006,” said Don Fogel, who is in charge of maintenance in the Corps’ Pittsburgh office.
Standing in the bottom of the chamber, Mr. Fogel gave chunks of concrete from the ancient lock’s crumbly walls as souvenirs to visiting Corps dignitaries and a representative of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. He said the Corps has spent $13 million repairing Elizabeth since 2006, more than six times the $1.7 million cost of building the project in 1907.
It is money that could have been spent on other river projects that also are in dire need of repair or replacement. About 60 percent of the Corps’ 242 locks and related dams are older than 50 years, how long they were built to last, according to AEP River Operations executive Martin Hettel, chairman of an industry group that advises the Corps.
Legislation recently signed by President Barack Obama could advance completion of the Lower Mon project. Part of that project included the construction of a new dam in Braddock, which was finished in 2004. Yet to be completed are two new locks at Charleroi, and dredging the river to allow barge traffic to move between those two facilities. The locks and dams at Elizabeth, which lie in between, will be removed.
The new law requires the federal government to cover more of the cost of a project on the Ohio River that has been plagued by expense overruns and delays.
That Olmsted, Ill., project has been receiving the bulk of federal and industry funding that goes toward major Corps projects. And that has left little money for the Corps to complete the Lower Mon project, the agency‘s No. 2 priority.
The Corps and the barge industry typically split the cost of major projects. The industry pays a 20 cent-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel that barge operators use, funds that are matched by the federal government.
Under the new legislation, the funding formula for Olmsted will change to make taxpayers responsible for 75 percent of the cost. That is expected to free up an additional $105 million for the Lower Mon work and other long-delayed projects.
However, the legislation only authorized Congress to provide the funding. Congress must still approve an appropriations bill that provides the money.
Congress also is considering proposals to raise the diesel tax by 6 to 9 cents per gallon. Each penny increase would provide about $4 million in additional funding, which would be matched by the federal government. The barge industry backs the increase.
Depending on the outcome of those proposals, completion of the Low Mon work, currently set for 2028, should be accelerated.
“We just can‘t tell how much,” said Jeanine Hoey of the Corps Pittsburgh office.
Len Boselovic: 412-263-1941 or email@example.com