-- Michael Hennessey, chairman of the National Waterways Foundation, a research group funded by river transportation companies
Those who think this warning is just industry alarmism should read Post-Gazette reporter Len Boselovic's four-part series that began last Sunday. The facts themselves shout the alarm.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the agency charged with maintaining the system, agrees that the nation's 11,000-mile inland waterways are "a crisis headed for a catastrophe," in the words of a high-ranking corps official.
Pittsburgh, which owes its location and historic emergence to the meeting of three rivers, is particularly in peril. The region's 23 locks and dams, key to the annual passage of 33 million tons of coal, petroleum and other commodities, are some of the oldest in the nation.
At the Elizabeth locks and dams, 105 years old, chunks of concrete periodically fall from a collapsing roof in the tunnel that carries water to fill and empty the lock chambers. Farther up the Monongahela River at Charleroi, the walls of a lock built in 1932 sway back and forth with each filling and emptying.
What happens if or when a catastrophic failure occurs? River traffic will shut down for months. Local economies will suffer. Cargoes will be put on more expensive rail cars and trucks -- barges are estimated to be $14 a ton cheaper -- and this will have costly implications for businesses and consumers alike.
Electricity rates will go up; an October study by the corps estimated that a closure of the Lower Mon could increase electricity costs by $1 billion annually. Communities that take water from the river could experience problems.
When disaster strikes, it will come because of absent-minded, half-hearted political neglect. More than half the nation's locks and dams, built to last 50 years, are still operating years after their projected life.
To put it another way, previous generations have bequeathed great works of engineering to Americans living today, but the challenge of keeping up the system has not been met. While some projects proceed, others are put off or delayed. With each delay comes more complications and greater cost. The Corps of Engineers is forced to play a losing game of catch-up, making emergency repairs to put off the day of reckoning.
Congress bears the prime responsibility. The buck has literally stopped on Capitol Hill. While $8 billion has been authorized for locks and dams, Congress has failed to fund projects up front, setting up the cycle that is beggaring the system.
The funding system needs an overhaul, but it already generates $170 million a year -- half from a 20-cents-a-gallon fee that barge operators pay on diesel fuel they use, which is then matched by the federal government. At that rate it will take 22 years just to complete seven major projects under way; the others will have to wait.
The first thing Congress must do is take the threat seriously and view barge traffic with as much consideration as it does road and rail transportation. Yes, the federal deficit is a problem and spending must be limited. But if ever there was a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach, it has been on the nation's waterways infrastructure. When it fails, a large part of the economy fails with it.
There's still time. A 2010 report produced by the industry and corps suggested raising the diesel fuel tax to between 26 and 29 cents and to use the trust fund exclusively for lock construction and repair projects costing $100 million or more, with other projects picked up by the federal government. Soon legislation will be introduced in Congress to increase funding to $380 million a year -- and that should be taken up as a matter of urgency.
The Post-Gazette has often editorialized about the problems of aging locks and dams and the need to do something, but never before has an in-depth series laid out the stakes so starkly and comprehensively. Will anyone listen? Or must a disaster happen in order to get the nation's attention? No one wants to write an editorial that begins, "We told you so."