Federal budget woes mean there is no more money for the foreseeable future to make major repairs to aging locks and dams on the Allegheny River, after one last project is completed before Memorial Day weekend, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.
The cutbacks come after the Corps' budget for operating and maintaining locks and dams on the river was cut from $8.4 million in the 2011 fiscal year to $4 million in the current year. The Corps expects it will also be hamstrung next year, based on the $4.3 million allocated for Allegheny River operations in President Barack Obama's 2013 budget.
Corps spokesman Jeff Hawk said repair money will run out after work on the hydraulic system that fills and drains a lock at Highland Park is completed in time for the holiday weekend.
"This is it for the Allegheny," he said. "If something breaks, we've got to scramble for funds and there's no guarantee we'll fix it."
Last fall, budget woes prompted the Corps to curtail hours at three locks on the Allegheny River. The locks, which make the river navigable between the Ohio River and Natrona, are operating only 16 hours a day rather than around the clock.
Because of funding constraints, the Corps is devoting its dwindling funds to rivers like the Monongahela and Ohio, which see more commercial traffic.
But there are still businesses that rely on the Allegheny, including the Cheswick power plant operated by GenOn and Freeport Terminal, which handles grain, coal, scrap and other commodities moved by barge.
"It's hampering us. There's no question about it," said Freeport vice president Mark Devinney.
A spokeswoman for Consol Energy, whose barges bring coal to the Cheswick plant, said the lack of funds "will have an immediate and negative impact" and make river transportation less efficient and less safe.
Mr. Devinney said budget cuts have forced the Corps to adopt a "fix when fail" attitude toward maintaining about 200 locks and related dams on about 11,000 miles of the nation's rivers. The average lock is about 60 years old, 10 years older than the mechanisms were designed to last.
Locks on the lower Allegheny are even older. They were completed between 1927 and 1934.
"What it means for our people is that you cross your fingers and hope there's no fail," Mr. Devinney said.
Corps and industry officials warn that a prolonged failure at a major lock or dam would bring river traffic to a halt, shifting coal and other commodities from barges to trucks and railroads. That would increase traffic congestion, raise costs to shippers and could cause electricity prices to increase.
Funding shortages have also led to an $8 billion backlog of river projects across the entire system. The unfinished work includes replacing a 105-year-old lock and dam on the Monongahela, and building new locks in Charleroi.
Congress approved the Mon project in 1992 at an estimated cost of $750 million and expected it to be completed by 2004. Corps officials now say it will cost at least $1.4 billion and be completed in 2024 at the earliest.
"The direction of this is what really scares me," said Peter Stephaich of Campbell Transportation, a Houston, Pa., company that operates a fleet of 500 barges. "Today it's the Allegheny. Tomorrow it may be the Mon and other rivers throughout the country."
Meanwhile, traffic on the Monongahela will be disrupted in July when the Corps shuts down the Charleroi lock for repairs. That portion of the river will be closed from July 16 through Aug. 3 while the work is being done.Transportation - businessnews - neigh_east
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941. First Published May 15, 2012 12:00 AM