A 6,000 horsepower tugboat can lug around quite a bit of freight.
But when the AEP Legacy docked along the North Shore of the Allegheny River today, its most precious cargo was a message of warning.
"The infrastructure on the inland river system is in a dire state of repair," said Gretchen Chamberlain of AEP River Operations. Her company ships fourteen million tons of goods in and out of Pittsburgh every year, everything from glass and grain to coal and steel.
AEP generally uses smaller towboats than the Legacy in Pittsburgh, because she might not be able to fit under Pittsburgh's bridges if water levels are too high, but Chamberlain said AEP has brought in the Legacy to make a point, because Pittsburgh's aged locks and dams are slowing down river traffic.
"They're closing, and we are getting closer and having more and more catastrophic failures, which is an entire river closure, which is absolutely awful because, then, no traffic can transit up and down," said Chamberlain.
River closures are manageable when companies know about them in advance, according to Port of Pittsburgh Commission Executive Director James McCarville, but he said the seventeen deteriorating lock and dam facilities in the Pittsburgh area often need unscheduled repairs, which shuts down the river unexpectedly and throws a wrench in everybody's plans.
"Back in 1998, the number of unscheduled outages per lock chamber was about 50 hours a year. In 2011, it was over 700," said McCarville.
All those river closures add up over the course of a year.
"As a consumer, it will impact you on the bottom line, because if we can't haul things in 1500- to 2000-net-ton lot sizes, and do it at the lowest cost, then the cost of a consumer good is going to go up," said Chamberlain. "So, your loaf of bread is going to be higher. Your energy, your air conditioning and heating in your house will be more expensive because we can't efficiently move coal on the inland river system."
According to the National Waterways Association, a single standard towboat can haul as much cargo as 216 train cars, or more than a thousand trucks.
Most of the infrastructure on the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers received grades of "D" or "F" from an engineering group. McCarville said the Lower Mon has the most decrepit locks and dams in his Commission's purview.
"Elizabeth is over a hundred years old. It's built on wooden chambers. It has stability issues, and the dam has undermining issues — very, very serious," said McCarville. "Charleroi is building a new lock chamber, so they had to take one of two lock chambers out of service to build the new one. We're operating with a single lock chamber, and we don't have any funding to complete that project for decades to come."
Funding Outlook Bleak for Lock and Dam Repairs, New Construction
With today's funding situation, much of the necessary repair work won't be finished until 2034. Not only has the federal government cut maintenance funding by half, according McCarville, but he said Congress isn't budging on money for new construction, either.
"Even the towers [towing companies] have agreed to a tax increase to make it possible to build and remodel these locks and dams, but we've not been successful in getting anything in Congress or the administration to address the issue," said McCarville.
He said lawmakers are reluctant to pass any tax increase, and raising the towing industry's contribution to lock and dam funding would also mean providing more in federal matching funds.
McCarville said without working locks and dams, Pittsburgh's economy would be crippled. For example, he said the natural draft to the Monongahela River is just about eighteen inches.
"General Braddock, when he attacked the French Fort Duquesne, he actually marched his army twice across the river to do so," said McCarville. "It's only because of the foresight of the Congress and the [Army] Corps of Engineers that we built up this tremendous transportation system that allowed all of the private investment along the banks of this river to take place."
McCarville said it won't cost any money to tour the AEP Legacy, which is docked by the Del Monte building on the North Shore until 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday. He said the only price of admission is to get an education on the area's locks and dams.