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Jim Ross: River infrastructure a necessary, expensive investment

August 12, 2018 GMT

If it’s not a problem with a failing lock at one end of the Ohio River, it’s at the other end.

Earlier this month, as the Louisville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was making final preparations for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new $3.1 billion Olmsted Locks and Dam below Paducah, Kentucky, the Pittsburgh District said it was taking action to prevent a lock at the upper end of the river from failing completely.

The Pittsburgh District said it had awarded a $1.09 million contract to C.J. Mahan Construction Co. of Groveport, Ohio, to install a temporary repair to the severely cracked and unstable middle lock wall of the Montgomery Locks and Dam about 35 miles downriver of Pittsburgh.

Should the middle wall fail, the locks at Montgomery would have to be shut down completely, effectively cutting off the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers in that area from shipping any cargo by water to points downstream.

The repair to be done by C.J. Mahan is only a temporary measure until the Corps finishes planning work on building one new lock at each of the three Ohio River dams closest to Pittsburgh - Montgomery, Dashields and Emsworth. The Corps estimates the cost of building those three locks at $2.7 billion.

If those projects follow the same funding formula used at most inland waterways projects, about half the cost would come from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Towboat operators pay 29 cents per gallon in diesel fuel tax into the fund to finance waterways infrastructure projects.

The Olmsted project, which will replace two obsolete and trouble-plagued dams that are in their 90th years of service, dragged on for years because the trust fund could not meet the 50 percent share of such a large and complicated undertaking. A few years ago, Congress approved a plan to speed up construction at Olmsted by requiring the trust fund to supply only 15 percent of the remaining cost. Future projects will go back to the 50-50 cost share.

Here in this area, we’ve had it pretty good with our waterways infrastructure investments. The Gallipolis Locks and Dam, now known as the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam, was a choke point on the river for decades with its undersized locks built in a curve in the river back in the 1930s. The new lock canal there has made transiting that part of the river easier and safer. Safety is an important factor when you consider the amount of hazardous cargo that moves on the river.

Likewise, the old and undersized locks on the Kanawha River have been improved in recent years, too.

But there are others to consider on the inland system as well. The lower Monongahela River, the Cumberland River and the Illinois River all have locks and dams in dire need of upgrades to keep traffic flowing. And sooner or later, the aging system on the Upper Mississippi River will need to be addressed.

Replacing old locks is not an easy process in this age of thorough studies and public input. And at $900 million per lock on average up near Pittsburgh, it’s not an inexpensive one, either. But big bridges in major cities cost that much or more to move people and goods, too.

This part of the Ohio Valley is home to several companies that operate on other rivers. Local residents work on boats that travel those rivers. What happens far off can affect commerce here, so it’s incumbent on the people elected to Congress this fall to look beyond West Virginia and do what’s best for the inland transportation system as a whole.

We’ve had our needs taken care of. We can’t forget or ignore other areas that need work.