Report: Dams and locks deteriorating faster than they can be replaced

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Locks, dams and other parts of the nation's waterways infrastructure are wearing out faster than they can be repaired or replaced, requiring the federal government to decide how to increase funding for vital projects and to close or sell those that cannot be maintained, according to a report released today by the National Research Council.

Council members offered a number of options for addressing what they said have been 20 years of inadequate funding for locks, dams, harbors and levees used to reduce flood risks. Possible new sources of revenue include partnerships with the private sector and state and local government and increasing fees paid by those who use the nation's rivers and harbors, the report stated.

"If we don't do something new, our waterways infrastructure is going to be modified not by plan but by continued deterioration," said Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor David Dzombak, chairman of the NRC committee that wrote the report.

The study was commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for maintaining the nation's waterways infrastructure. The NRC is a nonprofit organization that provides advice to federal policy makers.

The lack of funding across several presidents' administrations makes it clear that not all facilities the Corps currently operates can be maintained, Mr. Dzombak said.

The Corps is reducing operation on locks and dams on the Allegheny River north of Pittsburgh because it does not receive the funding necessary to operate, maintain and rehabilitate them.

"In general, users of waterways infrastructure don't pay anywhere near the full cost of maintaining them," he said.

In Pittsburgh, lack of funding has resulted in costly delays in replacing a series of locks and dams on the Monongahela River, including a 105-year-old dam at Elizabeth.

When the project was authorized by Congress in 1992, it was scheduled to be completed in 2004 at estimated cost of $750 million. Corps officials said funding delays make it likely the project will cost $1.7 billion and won't be completed until 2033.

Half of the funding for major locks and dams projects comes from a 20-cent per-gallon tax on barge operators on the diesel fuel they use. The tax has not been increased since 1995, although legislation has been proposed to increase it to 26 cents.

Proposals to charge fees for using locks have been proposed since Franklin Roosevelt was president, but the industry has fought back those efforts.

Mostly recently, President Barack Obama has proposed lock user fees that would generate $1.1 billion over 10 years.

Recreational boaters pay no direct fees to maintain waterways infrastructure, according to the NRC.

A top Corps official said in 2010 that barge operators pay about 8 percent of the costs to maintain the locks and dams they use while companies that use coastal harbors maintained by the Corps cover about 80 percent of the costs of building, operating and maintaining ports and channels.

Mr. Dzombak, the CMU engineering professor, said it is up to Congress and the White House to decide which facilities can be maintained and to authorize legislative changes that permit fee increases and partnerships with private and public sector partners.

"It's up to us as a nation to decide what we want to do," he said.

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Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.


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