The long-delayed Lower Monongahela River Project to replace aging locks and dams is inching forward as funding becomes available, with a new $58.6 million dollar contract awarded to Joseph B. Fay Company to begin construction of a new lock wall near Charleroi.
The four-year contract will include building six reinforced concrete monoliths that will become part of the 260 foot by 35 foot wall. The new wall will be the center divider between two lock chambers that will eventually replace the current locks.
The locks near Charleroi have been under construction since 2002, says project manager Steve Fritz of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. The Locks and Dam 4 at Charleroi are being renovated as part of the estimated $2.7-billion dollar Lower Monongahela River Project, which began in 1994.
“Essentially it’s a condition-driven project to reinvest in the infrastructure for the locks and dams on the lower part of the river, similar to the way you would reinvest in the roof on your house,” Fritz said. “You gotta keep up with the roof on your house so your roof doesn’t leak, so you don’t ruin things inside.”
But just like many home repair projects, this one was put off and slowed down for years due to a lack of funding. The project was supposed to be completed by 2004 and cost only $750 million dollars. Now, Fritz says the Corps will be lucky to have it finished by 2028.
The project includes removing Locks and Dam 3 in Elizabeth. A century-old dam at Braddock was already replaced as part of the initiative.
Fritz says the maintenance is important for consumers.
“We reinvest in the locks and dams on the Lower Monongahela River to keep the costs of bulk commodity transport down so that things like electricity can be cheaper for the local or the regional area,” Fritz said.
The locks are a necessary part of allowing barges to transport commodities like coal and produce along the Mon.
“A lock is kind of like a water elevator,” Fritz said. “A ship will come in on the upstream side, the water inside the lock will lower, similar to the way it does in your bathtub, and then the boat or the ship will go out on the downstream side.”
According to Fritz, it makes sense to invest in water transportation systems because of their efficiency.
“One barge load of coal, that would take about 60 to 70 trucks to transport the same amount of coal to a power generation plant,” Fritz said.
Fritz estimates that the locks and dams on the Monongahela save coal transporters $10-13 per ton in transportation costs by allowing them to use barges instead of rail cars. Fritz also pointed out that the federal Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, which allotted more funding to waterway projects, might move the project ahead more quickly.