Optimism grows for repairing Western Pennsylvania locks and dams


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River industry officials are confident Congress will approve legislation this year that would boost funding for much-needed repairs to decaying locks and dams on the Monongahela River.

Their optimism is based on the U.S. Senate's overwhelming approval of such legislation in May, and a key House member's promise to put a funding proposal to a vote in the lower chamber soon.

The Water Resources Development Act, approved by an 83-14 vote in the Senate, calls for using only federal funds for a budget-busting, long delayed locks and dams project on the Ohio River at Olmsted, Ill.

That project is currently using up most of the funds available each year from a federal trust fund that finances major river infrastructure projects. That has caused lengthy delays at other projects authorized by Congress years ago, including replacing aging locks and dams on the Mon River at Braddock, Elizabeth Borough and Charleroi.

"I'm optimistic we're going to get legislation this year," said Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, an Arlington, Va., group that represents barge operators, shippers and other river interests.

"I can't give you a guarantee of that. It is Congress," he added.

Mr. Toohey expects a House vote on a similar measure this fall. But a key Pennsylvania lawmaker responsible for the legislation has a more ambitious timetable. U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said he hopes to put a measure to a full House vote before the August recess.

More than half of the 200-plus locks and related dams overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were built more than 50 years ago, which is how long they were designed to last. Western Pennsylvania has some of the oldest, including a 106-year-old dam on the Mon River near Elizabeth Borough.

Older infrastructure breaks down more often and is more costly to maintain. Unscheduled lock outages cause lengthy delays in moving the 550 million tons of grain, coal and other commodities shipped on the nation's rivers each year.

Corps and industry officials warn of catastrophic consequences if a heavily traveled lock or dam fails. That would bring river traffic to a halt, forcing goods to move by rail or truck. A failure of the debilitated locks and dams on the Lower Mon would jeopardize electric utilities and U.S. Steel, which rely on about 11 million tons of coal that move along that stretch of the river each year.

Congress authorized eliminating the Elizabeth dam in 1992 when it approved upgrading locks and dams at Braddock and Charleroi as well. At the time, the Lower Mon project was expected to be completed in 2004 at a cost of $750 million. Because of funding delays, the project is now estimated to cost $1.7 billion and won't be completed until 2033.

A major source of the delay is the Olmsted project, the Corps' top priority. The Illinois project was approved by Congress in 1988 at an estimated cost of $775 million. Piecemeal funding from Congress has pushed back its completion date from 2000 to 2024, and Olmsted is now expected to cost $3.1 billion.

The troubled project is getting most of the $170 million that is available each year from a trust account, funded in part by a 20-cent-per-gallon diesel fuel tax that barge operators pay. The tax raises about $85 million each year. Those revenues are matched dollar for dollar by federal funds.

The Senate bill would shift the burden for completing Olmsted from the trust fund to taxpayers. That would free up about $750 million between now and 2024 for the Lower Mon and other river projects that have been approved by Congress, according to Mr. Toohey's group.

Taxpayers for Common Sense opposes shifting the costs of Olmsted to taxpayers. The watchdog group contends the barge industry is one of the most heavily subsidized forms of transportation, with taxpayers already covering more than 90 percent of the costs of maintaining, repairing and replacing locks and dams. The Senate measure transfers even more of that burden to taxpayers, the group said.

A Western Pennsylvania lawmaker is confident Congress will address the lack of funding.

"Congress will find a solution to the construction backlog caused by Olmsted so we can move forward with finishing the Lower Mon project because it's vital to local jobs, manufacturers and coal mines across Greene and Washington counties," U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said in a statement.

Additional funding could come from increasing the tax on diesel fuel, which has not been raised since 1995. The 300 or so barge operators that pay the tax support an increase. Sen. Robert P. Casey, D-Pa., has submitted legislation that would raise it by 9 cents per gallon while a House proposal calls for a 6-cent hike.

Mr. Toohey said each 1-cent increase would generate $4.6 million annually, which would be matched by federal funds. He believes Congress will approve an increase closer to 9 cents rather than 6 cents.

The $12.5 billion in water projects authorized by the Senate measure also include work on the nation's ports and harbors. It was supported by a coalition of river industry groups, manufacturers, farmers and labor unions that is urging the House to pass a similar measure.

Mr. Shuster has expressed concern about a provision in the Senate bill that would direct funding to projects already recommended by the Corps and sent to Congress. That honors Congress' 2010 ban on earmarks.

He also believes Congress should be involved in deciding which projects are funded, a concern shared by U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. Mr. Doyle said he supports transferring the entire cost of the Olmsted project to the federal government and increasing the diesel fuel tax.

"That would free up funding for much-needed work on projects like our crumbling locks and dams here in southwestern Pennsylvania," he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Shuster said the legislation is still being developed and that it will be different from the Senate version. He said the House could consider the legislation as soon as July.

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


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