Congressmen Rothfus, Shuster want locks report finalized
A new federal inland waterways capital spending bill could move toward a House vote next month, extending hopes that a $2 billion project for locks and dams along the Ohio River might not be dead in the water.
“This project needs to move forward,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Bedford County, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Shuster on Wednesday visited the Emsworth Locks and Dams along with fellow Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus of Sewickley, and others involved with the river system to pressure the Army Corps of Engineers to complete a study that has taken 13 years and $17 million, but isn't finished.
A completed study is necessary to get congressional approval for a $2.3 billion project to build 600-by-110-foot locks at Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery dams.
Emsworth was built in the 1920s. It underwent a renovation in the 1980s, Rothfus said.
There is a 50 percent chance one of those three sites that make up the Upper Ohio River Navigation system will experience a “catastrophic failure” by 2028, said Rothfus, citing figures from Army Corps officials.
“These facilities are at risk,” he said.
Shuster vowed to explore ways to get the Upper Ohio project included in the Water Resources and Development Act, which he said he plans to move from his committee to the House floor in May. The Army Corps in Washington, D.C., however, is re-examining its report because an independent review questioned its cost-benefit analysis as being too conservative and its timeframe for recovering from a major problem — such as a wall collapse — as being too short.
Rothfus criticized the Army Corps for taking too long to examine such an important issue.
“These delays are inexcusable. They need to stop dragging their feet,” he said.
He said he was not being critical of the Army Corps staff that oversees local operations of the locks and dams, calling it a “headquarters problem.”
The Army Corps understands how important the Upper Ohio project and is trying to complete the report as soon as possible “without compromising the integrity of the study content and the checks and balances placed on the study process,” said Carol Davis, a spokeswoman for the agency's Pittsburgh office.
The Port of Pittsburgh uses the Upper Ohio locks to help move more than 35 million tons of cargo each year. That includes petroleum products, processed metal, grain, construction equipment and coal.
The coal carried on 25 barges would require about 1,000 trucks to haul over roads, said Peter Stephaich, CEO of Campbell Transportation Co., a Washington County-based barge operator. He called river shipping crucial.
“It's the lowest cost mode of transportation. It's the safest mode of transportation. And it's the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation,” Stephaich said.
The industry agreed to a fuel tax increase to help pay for necessary improvements to the system, he said.
A 9-cent hike went into effect in 2015, meaning that a total 29 cents per gallon of barge diesel fuel sold is reserved for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund — an amount matched by federal dollars to pay for new construction and rehabilitation of the inland system.
“We feel this is cash we put into the system,” Stephaich said, “and we want to make sure it is spent efficiently and properly.”