Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Friday he will propose legislation to increase funding for repairing or replacing the nation's aging system of river locks and dams.
The federal government and barge operators who use the waterways infrastructure would kick in more money for the projects under the proposal Mr. Casey outlined at a Station Square news conference. It would provide greater safeguards against the chronic cost overruns and delays that have plagued lock and dam projects in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
Mr. Casey said his proposal would create jobs, support cheap efficient river transportation and promote economic growth.
"We're going to continue to invest in what is a real strength for southwest Pennsylvania," he said. "If [funding] increases and we're asking for greater investment, we need more reform."
Each year, about 550 million tons of coal, grain and other commodities are shipped on the nation's rivers, shipments made possible by more than 200 federally owned and operated locks and related dams. More than half of them are more than 50 years old. The Pittsburgh region has some of the nation's oldest locks and dams, including a 106-year-old dam at Elizabeth.
Shortfalls in federal funding mean locks and dams are closed for repairs more often, causing delays and raising costs for barge operators.
Industry officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates and maintains the system, warn that failure of a lock or dam on a major river could close it to barge traffic and force goods to move by rail or highway. Mr. Casey echoed their concerns.
"If this whole system shuts down, guess whose rates will go through the roof?" he asked.
His proposal would raise the diesel fuel tax barge operators pay into a trust fund to finance the river projects from 20 to 29 cents per gallon. The tax has not been increased since 1995.
The tax generates about $85 million annually, which would increase to about $120 million under Mr. Casey's proposal. That money is matched by federal dollars, and is used to replace or make major repairs to debilitated locks and dams.
The $170 million available each year barely makes a dent in what the Corps and industry officials say is an $8 billion backlog of projects. Funding the projects piecemeal increases their cost, contributing to chronic cost overruns and construction delays at the projects, including work under way on the Monongahela River.
Congress authorized the Lower Mon work in 1992 at an estimated cost of $750 million. At the time, the work was scheduled to be completed in 2004. Based on current funding levels, the work is not expected to be finished until 2033 at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion.
River industry officials said Mr. Casey's bill would increase annual funding to $380 million, more than double current levels. They said it would also limit the amount of diesel tax revenue used to cover unreasonable cost overruns.
Mr. Casey said his proposal will not ask barge operators to pay fees to move through locks, charges that presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have proposed. Congress has never approved the fees.
Last year, President Barack Obama proposed lock user fees that would have raised $1.1 billion over 10 years.
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941. First Published February 16, 2013 5:00 AM