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Sen. Casey calls for action on Ohio River lock and dam projects

Wes Venteicher
| Wednesday, July 11, 2018, 5:40 p.m.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, renewed a call this week for the federal government to make needed repairs and upgrades to locks and dams on the Upper Ohio River, saying failure to do so could be “catastrophic” for the river structures and the 200,000 jobs that rely on their operation.

Casey urged Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to speed up the process, saying the government has been ordering studies on the estimated $2.7 billion project for 15 years.

“It’s time for the budget director to understand what we’re up against here in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I don’t want to hear some Washington, D.C. talk about how we have to cut back on priorities for Southwestern Pennsylvania,” Casey told reporters Monday in North Braddock.

Concrete is deteriorated in the Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery Locks and Dams, which have been in operation for six to eight decades, and the structures are too small to accommodate the largest towboats used on the Ohio River, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study.

Temporary repairs in the 1980s and 1990s were meant to extend the structures’ lives 25 years. The 25-year-stretch ended for each structure between 2010 and 2015.

The federal Office of Management and Budget is re-evaluating the benefits from the proposed updates to the locks and dams, incorporating declines in the coal industry and trends in natural gas development in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, said Lenna Hawkins, the Corps of Engineers deputy district engineer. The study is scheduled to be finished in May of next year, Hawkins said.

Under the last estimates, repairing the three structures would add about $240 million per year in economic benefits to the existing $110 million per year in benefits that come from the operational locks and dams, according to the Corps. It could be finished in eight years, under a best-case scenario, according to Corps estimates.

The economic benefits measurement is a complex calculation of the impacts the infrastructure has on prices of consumer goods and services (like electricity) that depend on the transportation of raw materials by river.

The locks and dams accommodate movement of around 40 million tons per year of coal, petroleum products, sand, gravel and other aggregate materials. About 26,000 tons of that is electricity-generating coal that travels downstream to coal-fired plants.

Shipping by water is cheaper than over land, and the loss of the river would add a massive amount of traffic to roads and rail lines, Hawkins said.

One jumbo barge carries the equivalent of 58 tractor-trailer loads, she said. A towboat can push 15 barges, the equivalent of 870 truck-loads, she said, or 225 jumbo rail cars. That comes out to roughly 4,300 truckloads per day moving on the river, she said.

The Corps is also continuing work on the Lower Monongahela Locks and Dams, with a recent infusion of $98 million in federal money. The project, authorized in 1992 with a cost estimate of $750 million and a scheduled finish in 2004, is now scheduled to be finished in 2023 at a cost of $1.23 billion. That estimate includes deferring work on one of the locks indefinitely.

The Lower Mon project, which includes removing the Elizabeth Lock and Dam south of Clairton, would bring $200 million in new economic benefits, according to Corps estimates.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wes at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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