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Repairs of Ohio River locks and dams stymied

| Wednesday, March 30, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Water flows through the Emsworth Locks and Dams along the Ohio River, as seen from Neville Island, on Tuesday, March 29, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Ohio River flows through the Emsworth Locks and Dams on Tuesday, March 29, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Cracks run along the Emsworth Locks and Dams on the Ohio River on Tuesday, March 29, 2016.

A single signature is holding up a long-delayed $2.3 billion plan to repair three dilapidated locks and dams on the Ohio River.

The Upper Ohio River Navigation project — in which new 600-by-110-foot locks would be built at the Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery locks and dams — must be approved by top Army Corps of Engineers officials before the project can be submitted to Congress for approval. That can't happen until a study about the project plan is completed, and that has taken 13 years and cost $17 million, said U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley.

“It is time for the Army Corps to address the continual delays that plague this project and get this project under way for our constituents,” Rothfus wrote in a statement.

In the latest delay, an independent review board took issue with the time it would take to get the locks running again in case of a major problem, such as a wall collapse. The study the Army Corps submitted estimated three years, but the board said it would take 40 months beyond that — and as a result, the study won't be submitted again until 2017.

That timeline means the project could miss the Water Resources and Development Act of 2016 reauthorization, when Congress gives the go-ahead for such capital projects.

Tracy Zea, government relations director for the Waterways Council, which represents users of the nation's river system, said industry is concerned that the study is getting delayed for being too conservative.

“In our view, isn't that more reason why they should authorize this study?” Zea said. “What happens if there is a failure? You can't afford to wait an additional two years.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Everett, aims to keep the Water Resources and Development Act on a two-year authorization scheduled since the last one passed in 2014. The previous authorization was in 2007, and 2000 before that — giving Zea little confidence that the Upper Ohio project might be authorized soon.

Large-scale capital projects at locks involve a lengthy approval process, one that hinges on whether the project is economically sound.

When the Upper Ohio study initially was reported to the board, it had a 2.6-to-1 cost-benefit ratio, meaning for every dollar invested the economic benefit would be $2.60. Steve Fritz, an Army Corps engineer in charge of the study project, wouldn't speculate about how that ratio would change after it is calculated with a different timeline.

“If it turns out the economics are in the opposite direction, then this is not a good investment for the federal government,” Fritz said. “It really is tied to that.”

Army Corps engineers stress the importance of keeping the structures functioning. Fritz said barges carrying coal equate to about 25 truckloads if they were shipped by land, making inland waterways a more environmentally friendly solution.

As delays go on, maintenance costs add up. This year, the three locks and dams are receiving $13.35 million in upgrades, some of which will require a collective 63 days of closures.

“We cut our teeth building and maintaining these structures, and from a technical side, we understand what we're facing here,” said Don Fogel, chief of maintenance for the Pittsburgh district. “It's not a two-day fix or a 10-day fix. It's years and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Locks users agree that it's time for repairs, as they experience the effects of aging locks. Rich Kreider, vice president of logistics at Campbell Transportation Co. Inc., deals with locks being shut down for repairs on a regular basis.

Normal operation might take a shipment of about 22,000 tons roughly 45 minutes to move through, Kreider said. During closures, it might take four or five hours to move a third of the weight through the open, smaller chamber because the smaller lock can move only one barge at a time, Kreider said.

“It means tremendous increases in my operating costs,” Kreider said. “Oftentimes we can't get enough tonnage through those, period.”

For shippers like Kreider, who has three to five shipments navigate the Upper Ohio every day, it means shipping items in advance of the closures, or scheduling in extra time to move barges through.

Kreider said he is frustrated, especially as he considers the role the waterway system plays in U.S. industry.

“Until this delayed economic study, it was going down the best road possible,” he said. “We would've liked to have this taken care of six or eight years ago.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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