The Port of Pittsburgh has locked in an “unprecedented” amount of funding to overhaul a critical piece of the nation’s inland waterway system, U.S. Senator Bob Casey announced on Wednesday. The $857 million allocation for the Montgomery Locks and Dam, located near Monaca, Pa., represents nearly a third of all the money Congress set aside for inland waterways in its 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“This is a big win,” Casey said. “It will allow us to move commerce throughout not just southwestern Pennsylvania but throughout the waterway system of the United States. It allows us to be competitive.”
Nearly 21 million tons of goods move through the Port of Pittsburgh each year, and if one of its locks and dams should go down, “the economy of a large segment of America would be adversely impacted,” Casey said.
The Montgomery Locks and Dam improvement is part of a larger effort called the Upper Ohio Navigation Project, which aims to overhaul three locks and dams on the Ohio River: Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery. The three facilities are the first on the Ohio River, which leads deep into the interior of the U.S., and then on to the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. All three opened before 1936 and have the smallest capacity of any of the facilities along the Ohio River, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As if to underscore the facility’s importance, traffic on the river came to a near-halt last month while Montgomery underwent significant repairs, said Mary Ann Bucci, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh.
“The back-ups were up to 10 days,” she said. “These barges and tugboats were sitting for 10 days. And you know any transportation company is not making money when they’re not delivering freight.”
The facility is estimated to have a 50% chance of failure by 2028. “Now we don’t have to worry about that,” Bucci said.
Unlike efforts to fix other locks and dams in the region, the overhaul of Montgomery is entirely covered by the federal allocation. Bids to build two new 600-foot chambers can be put out all at once so that the region won’t find itself in “year 28 of a 10-year project,” Bucci said, referring to the long-running effort to complete the Lower Mon project to replace the three oldest locks and dams on that river.
The investment is just the first of many in the nation’s infrastructure, and will generate family-sustaining jobs, said Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council. Kelly estimates the work on Montgomery alone could create 1,000 jobs.
“This is another artery that opens up for our great city,” he said. “Pittsburgh is one of the busiest landlocked ports in the world” and will hopefully soon be able to handle larger ships.
But while the repairs to the Montgomery Locks and Dam are fully funded, the money to complete the rest of the Upper Ohio Navigation project remains uncommitted.
Casey and Bucci said they will continue to work to find the funding.