Region's locks, dams in 'decrepit condition'

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For a guy about to show off one of his prized assets, Col. Mike Crall was remarkably candid.

"You'll be shocked when you see this old house," he said, referring to the 102-year-old Lock and Dam 3 on the Monongahela River at Elizabeth.

By all rights, the lock and dam should be long gone. It remains as both a testament to the spirit and resolve of the Army Corps of Engineers and a monument to government inertia.

Built in 1907 with an expected life of 50 years, it was supposed to be removed in 2004, after improvements to the locks and dams upriver and downriver from it. Now, the kindest estimates have it continuing to wheeze until 2020.

"It's one of the oldest and most unreliable facilities in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inventory and in the nation," said Col. Crall, Pittsburgh District engineer for the corps.

One of the two lock chambers was drained recently for repairs, a chore performed every 15 years or so.

Its mud-caked bottom was visible yesterday along with an array of construction equipment and a spray of water from a leak. A dozen or so steel struts were mounted across the chamber to ensure that the ancient concrete walls didn't collapse inward when the water was removed.

The repairs are consuming scarce funds that could have been used elsewhere had the lock and dam been retired on schedule, Col. Crall pointed out.

He and James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, added this bit of math: The Monongahela River Locks and Dams 2, 3 and 4 Project was budgeted at $750 million when it was authorized in 1992. Some $467 million has been spent, but the work is now $1 billion short of completion.

"Our biggest enemy has been time," Mr. McCarville said.

He said he organized yesterday's tour "to bring to the attention of the public the decrepit condition of our locks and dams and to demonstrate the importance of them to our region."

For openers, the network of 23 locks and dams and 16 reservoirs across five states keeps the rivers from drying to an unnavigable trickle in the summer and prevents or mitigates flooding after storms.

The rivers form an efficient transportation network for coal, gasoline, road salt, chemicals and other commodities, with one barge carrying the equivalent of 15 jumbo rail cars or 58 trucks. They also serve as a source of drinking water and recreation.

"This infrastructure affects people in many ways they don't realize," Col. Crall said.

Funding for the Pittsburgh district declined from $184.3 million in fiscal 2008 to $160.7 million for the current fiscal year and is set to drop to $127.1 million next year.

The corps welcomed a $139.7 million one-time infusion from the federal economic stimulus program this year, including $84 million to advance the long-delayed replacement of the antiquated locks at Charleroi, site of Lock and Dam 4.

When that work is done, the lock and dam at Elizabeth will be removed, and river traffic will have nonstop travel from Charleroi to Braddock, where a new dam was completed in 2004.

The corps estimates the economic benefit at more than $220 million per year in reduced transportation costs that will translate into, among other things, lower electric bills.

For now, Col. Crall's mission is to keep the Elizabeth facility stitched and bandaged.

But, he said, "I look forward to coming back and pushing the plunger to blow this thing out of the water."

Jon Schmitz can be reached at or 412-263-1868. First Published June 5, 2009 4:00 AM


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