Bill would increase funding for locks, dams

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Legislation that would provide increased federal money for long-delayed repairs to crumbling locks and dams on the Monongahela River will be introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Wednesday his proposal would raise the diesel tax that barge operators pay to help fund major river infrastructure improvements. It would also make an Ohio River project plagued by more than $2 billion in cost overruns ineligible to receive money from a trust fund supported by the tax.

New locks and a dam being built on the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill., currently receive $147 million of the $170 million in federal funding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is allotted each year to build new facilities or make major repairs to existing infrastructure.

That leaves little money for other projects, including building new locks on the Mon River at Charleroi so that a 105-year-old lock and dam upriver at Elizabeth can be demolished.

Michael Hennessey, a member of an industry panel that advises the Corps on locks and dams spending, said the legislation "is going to help us here in Pittsburgh."

"If you take Olmsted out, those dollars should transfer directly to the Lower Mon project. They should get a lot more," said Mr. Hennessey, who works for Brownsville Marine Products, a Mon River company that builds barges.

More than 200 locks and the dams located alongside them make it possible to move about 550 million tons of coal, grain and other commodities annually on the nation's 11,000-mile river system. More than half of the facilities are older than the 50 years they were designed to last, with Pittsburgh having some of the oldest locks and dams in the country.

The Corps says many locks and dams are on the brink of failure and are wearing out faster than Congress is providing funds to repair or replace them. Corps and industry officials warn that a failure at a major lock would bring river traffic to a halt, putting more trucks on highways. A dam failure would reduce water levels, potentially threatening water supplies for industrial customers and consumers.

The lack of consistent and adequate funding has contributed to overruns at Olmsted, a project authorized by Congress in 1988 at an estimated cost of $775 million. Originally scheduled to be completed in 2000, the project is now forecast to be done in 2024 at a cost of $3.1 billion.

Delays at Olmsted have pushed up costs for the Lower Mon project from $750 million to an estimated $1.7 billion. Originally targeted to be completed in 2004, the project won't be finished until 2033 unless funding levels are increased.

Revenue from the diesel tax provides half of the $170 million at the Corps' disposal each year. The tax has been set at 20 cents per gallon since 1995. A task force of industry and Corps officials recommended in 2010 that it be increased to 26 to 29 cents per gallon.

Sen. Alexander's bill supports that, as does a bill introduced in the House earlier this year by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. Mr. Whitfield's proposal has attracted 29 cosponsors, none of them from Western Pennsylvania.

Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have proposed charging barge operators user fees to use locks. President Barack Obama's most recent budget message called for user fees that would generate $1.1 billion over 10 years. Industry officials have beat back the proposal.

Mr. Alexander's American Waterworks Act would also provide more federal funding for harbor improvements so U.S. ports can accommodate the larger ships that will move through the Panama Canal once an expansion project there is completed in 2014.

businessnews

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


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