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Increased investment in Pittsburgh region's locks and dams gets major backing

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Citing a “catastrophic” period in the history of Western Pennsylvania's locks and dams, elected and industry officials are supporting Sen. Bob Casey's legislation to increase investment in waterways projects and improve the way they are managed.

The region's 23 locks are old, and in some cases crumbling, officials said. Some have unstable chamber walls and others lost large chunks of concrete from their chamber walls.

“This is about the future. ... Western Pennsylvania doesn't wait for the future, it invents the future,” Casey said Friday in outlining his bill in Pittsburgh.

About 41 million tons of cargo are shipped and received each year through the Port of Pittsburgh, the second-largest inland port in the country. The primary cargo is coal but millions of tons of sand, gravel, iron ore, manufactured goods, petroleum, petroleum products and chemicals also pass through Pittsburgh, where thousands of jobs depend on the reliable operations of river supply lines.

Casey, a Scranton Democrat who was appointed Tuesday to the Senate Finance Committee, said the position will allow him to fight for Pennsylvania's priorities.

“I will have a seat at the table in addressing responsible tax reform to spur innovation, create jobs and promote economic growth,” he said.

His bill calls for an increase in the inland waterways user fee from 20 cents to 29 cents per gallon that barge operators pay on fuel, a change industry officials said they support. It also contains changes to the way waterway projects are managed to ensure cost overruns are reduced.

It takes about 30 years to complete an Army Corps of Engineer project, said Michael J. Toohey, CEO of the Waterways Council Inc. of Arlington, Va., which lobbies for funding of inland waterway and ports.

“We have $8 billion of shovel-ready projects,” he said.

Michael W. Hennessey, vice president of sales and marketing for Brownsville Marine Products LLC in Fayette County, said maintenance of the eight locks and dams on the Allegheny, the nine on the Monongahela and the six on the Ohio, must be a priority.

“We are in a catastrophic period. ... If we have a failure of a lock in Pittsburgh, we are out of business,” Hennessey said.

Casey's bill would allow risk-based cost estimates that would help to ensure they are not exceeded and project schedules are kept. Projects that cost more than $45 million would be required to go through an independent external peer review.

The bill also requires the secretary of the Army to work with the Inland Waterways Users board to develop a 20-year plan for waterways projects.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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