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House passes water resources bill that includes funding for Upper Ohio locks

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved a massive $90 billion water resources bill Wednesday that includes authorization to replace three aging locks that keep barge traffic moving on the Upper Ohio River.

Passage came on a 399-25 vote.

The Senate has already authorized the Upper Ohio projects as part of its own water resources bill, but other parts of the upper chamber’s legislation differ from the House version. It will be up to a conference committee to reconcile the differences.

Separate legislation is required to appropriate funding.

The Upper Ohio project is expected to cost $2.6 billion over about 20 years. Half the cost would be funded through a 29-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel that barge operators pay. The rest would come from federal taxpayers.

The Army Corps of Engineers spent more than 13 years and $17 million studying the project. Its plan calls for replacing the Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery locks, which are between 70 and 90 years old. Locks are meant to last 50 years.

Repairs are frequent and expensive. Unexpected repairs sometimes cause barge operators to wait days for their turn to pass through the locks.

Complete failure would be catastrophic, said Mary Ann Bucci, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh, which handles more than 35 million tons of cargo each year.

“If something happened at Emsworth, you wouldn’t have a navigable river,” she said. “And it’s not like when a highway is closed and there’s another way around. With rivers, there isn’t another way.”

The Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery work — known collectively as the “EDM project” — is just one part of the sweeping Water Resources Development Act.“The EDM facilities provide critical access to the Port of Pittsburgh, one of the nation’s busiest inland ports. This will provide enormous benefits to the region, and make our entire nation more competitive,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Bedford, who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which developed the legislation.The funding is critical for the region and long overdue, said U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, whose district’s waterways serve as a vital transportation link.

“Yet each year, the cost of maintenance grows and the need for upgrades becomes more urgent,” the congressman said after Wednesday’s vote. “This crucial funding will ensure our waterways transportation remains cost-efficient, and the locks and dams serving as the navigational backbone of these rivers are modernized.”

U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said the EDM authorization is welcome.

“I like to say that Western Pennsylvania built this country. This would not have been possible without the infrastructure that turned our rivers into highways of commerce that allowed Pennsylvania steel, machinery, petroleum products and agricultural goods to travel to market efficiently and affordably along the Ohio River and beyond,” Mr. Rothfus said in a floor speech.

Area business leaders are relieved the bill passed the House.“This will help us advance economic development, job growth and an improved quality of life in southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Matt Smith, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

Barge owners have been pushing for years to have the locks on the Upper Ohio replaced.

“We’ve been very concerned about it. There’s a sense of urgency in making sure these projects are fully funded. We just can’t afford any further delays,” said Michael J. Monahan, president of Campbell Transportation Co. in Houston, Pa., which operates 600 barges.

House passage is “just a first step, but a critical one,” he said.

The sweeping legislation also authorizes projects for the Port of Charleston in South Carolina, Port Everglades in Florida and the Everglades ecosystem. It also provides funding for flood control along the Missouri River and around Sacramento, Calif.

The federal share of the projects authorized in the bill amounts to $9 billion.

Some House Democrats on Tuesday threatened to derail the bill because — unlike the Senate version — it did not authorize a $220 million project addressing lead poisoning in drinking water in Flint, Mich. However, negotiators worked on a compromise and it was included in the bill.

“It was a year ago this month that we learned of a man-made drinking-water crisis in Flint, which exposed thousands of our fellow Americans to contaminated water … and even today these families do not have access to clean water from their taps,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass, said in a floor speech early Wednesday. “America is supposed to be a place where we look out for one another and our neighbors when they are in need.”

Authorization of the Flint project in the water legislation averted a government shutdown. House Democrats had been threatening to derail a separate bill — a stopgap measure to continue funding the federal government beyond Oct. 1 — because it excluded emergency funding for Flint.

Some opponents of the water bill voted no because they were concerned that GOP leadership stripped out a provision that would have ensured money collected for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is actually used for upkeep of coastal ports and harbors.

U.S. Rep. Peter Defazio of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said too much of that funding has been diverted to other kinds of projects. He scoffed at an $810 million project to improve a riverside flood area in Fort Worth, Texas, because part of the authorized funding would go toward athletic facilities, a swimming pool and a splash park.

He said it’s wrong to spend trust fund dollars on a “boondoggle” when “our harbors are silting in, our jetties are failing, and many major projects are being delayed.”

Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com., 703-996-9292 or @pgPoliTweets.