Locks and dams system needs proper funding

June 19, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

The locks and dams scattered along the three rivers surrounding Pittsburgh are an integral part of the magnificent system that channels commerce and goods up and down our waterways.

It’s an invaluable infrastructure system that allows year-round travel on the rivers around Pittsburgh – normally too shallow to navigate during the summer – and prevents flooding during heavy storms.

But one look at any of these nearly two-dozen facilities in our region clearly illustrates the need for a total overhaul of the locks and dams river system.

Built more than a century ago, they’re falling apart and in desperate need of repair. About 60 percent of the locks and dams operated by the Army Corps of Engineers are more than 50 years old, which is about their typical lifespan. That number is expected to spike to 85 percent by 2030.

Many people think of highways and railroads as the backbone of our economy, while neglecting improvements to the river infrastructure, but the locks and dams system is equally as important.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is trying to change that mindset. He visited Locks and Dam No. 4 along the Monongahela River in Charleroi to discuss President Trump’s proposed funding cuts in his budget to the current project making upgrades to locks in the lower Mon Valley.

The need to upgrade the area’s locks and dams shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been sounding the alarm bells for years. The Pittsburgh District oversees 23 locks and dams on the three major rivers, which is 10 percent of the total facilities operated nationwide by the Corps.

Three years ago, the Corps allowed local media members to tour the inside of an empty chamber undergoing repairs at Locks and Dam No. 3 along the Monongahela River near Elizabeth. Chunks of fallen concrete were scattered across the 110-year-old facility that had long outlived its expected lifespan when it was constructed at the turn of the last century.

The Corps wants to remove the deteriorating dam, but the funding stream forced it to make patchwork repairs instead.

The federal Water Resources Reform Development Act was signed into law in 2014 and authorized new projects, but the Corps still needed more money for the improvement projects.

So it’s puzzling that the Trump Administration would make cuts in this area, especially now that there are rumblings the president plans to push a $1 trillion infrastructure bill later this year.

Casey also raised concerns about Trump’s suggestion that tolls could be placed on the ships that navigate through locks. That undoubtedly would cause an exodus from the river and force more goods to be transported on the highways, creating a domino effect of increased traffic and damaged roads.

These locks and dams are an integral part of our region and its economy.

They’ve been neglected for far too long.

Infrastructure improvements are now in the national spotlight with our crumbling roads and bridges.

It seems natural that locks and dams should also be part of the discussion.

If so, there’s no reason to defund these projects along the Mon River.

If anything, it’s past time to spend the money necessary to fix them now, so we don’t pay a heftier price later.

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