Aging Mon River locks and dams in need of upgrades

Crews are working to fix Locks and Dam No. 3 in Elizabeth for the second time in eight years

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ELIZABETH – Chunks of fallen concrete scattered inside the “dewatered” chamber of the Monongahela River Locks and Dam No. 3 made for an interesting souvenir for visiting dignitaries, but they also provided a strong warning about the aging infrastructure along America’s interior waterways.


The concrete chunks, along with other problems inside the empty chamber near Elizabeth, were evidence of the 107-year-old facility’s age that had long outlived its expected lifespan when it was constructed at the turn of the 20th century.


“Rusted concrete doesn’t last forever,” Corps of Engineers Chief of Maintenance Don Fogel said while standing on the floor of the silt-covered chamber.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered a tour of the locks and dam Friday morning amid the two-month rehabilitation project to highlight the need for better infrastructure funding for what officials say is the often forgotten waterway system, compared to roads and rails.


“Today, we’re seeing a new environment where our infrastructure is no longer new and it’s in need of maintenance,” Col. Bernard Lindstrom said. “Understanding the value of each drop of water that spills over the dam is evidence of the need for these (upgrades).”


Lindstrom, commander of the Corps of Engineers District in Pittsburgh, said many don’t understand the value of the country’s interior waterways and the amount of commerce that is moved on them. Nearly 16 tons of goods and materials passed through Elizabeth locks last year, and that number continues to increase.


As officials were talking, a CSX train rumbled by with dozens of cars filled to the brim with coal. It was an example of how officials said many people think of trucks and trains as the backbone of commerce, while neglecting river improvements.


“The river is very efficient, but all of these efficiencies are being challenged by the aging infrastructure,” said Martin Hettel, chairman of the Inland Waterway Users board.


The Pittsburgh District oversees 23 locks and dams on the three major rivers – 10 percent of the total facilities operated nationwide by the Corps – which help control flooding and allow for continuous transportation throughout the year.


The Elizabeth locks and dam are between similar facilities in Charleroi and Braddock. Those two locks are currently getting extensive upgrades that the Corps of Engineers hope will allow them to eventually dismantle the decrepit Elizabeth site and dredge the river to correct the water level, which ultimately would improve the shipping lanes along the Mon.


That lower Mon River improvement project was authorized in the early 1990s and supposed to be completed a decade ago, but a dwindling revenue stream in recent years has pushed those plans back to 2028. The Elizabeth locks were supposed to be removed by 2004, but now have undergone two costly maintenance projects – including the current one – just to keep them functioning properly. They likely will remain for another decade, possibly longer.


“We had a good start on this project … but it stalled with the funding,” Army Corps project manager Jeanine Hoey said.


The $2.7 billion lower Mon River project gets more expensive over the years as temporary patches continued to be placed on the Elizabeth locks and dam.


The federal Water Resources Reform Development Act, signed into law earlier this year, authorizes new projects, but the Corps still needs more appropriations to perform the work. For now, they are selecting which issues need to be repaired immediately, what can be repaired at a lower cost and what projects can wait for another day when funding becomes available.


That prompted a lively conversation led by Hettel about whether there should be a greater burden on recreational boaters and industries located along the water, rather than taxing gasoline used by ships that travel the rivers. Lindstrom raised the idea of a public-private partnership to raise more money.


“What’s the new model?” Lindstrom said. “We don’t have the answers, but we have some thoughts.”


Until there are changes, Corps of Engineers Ohio River Division Program Director David Dale said they will prioritize. He said they are looking at their budgets and decided on rehab projects that would provide maximum value to the public and commerce.


“We can’t do it all any longer,” Dale said. “We’re working very hard to assure you that we are prioritizing that work to deliver the maximum value.”


About 60 percent of the Corps’ locks and dams are more than 50 years old, which is their typical lifespan, and that number is expected to spike to 85 percent by 2030, he said.


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