Pittsburgh District breaks ground on first step in updating aging navigation system on upper Ohio River

PITTSBURGH – A groundbreaking ceremony in the Pittsburgh region set the stage for updating the Ohio River’s oldest navigation system.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District welcomed industry, community and political leaders for the ceremony, digging shovels into a pile of dirt at the Montgomery Locks and Dam facility Aug. 11. The event marked the start of a construction project with benefits that will flow into the nation’s economy.

“You’ve probably noticed driving on site today. Construction is already underway,” said Col. Nicholas Melin, the commander of the Pittsburgh District.

“It’s only fitting that we life our shovels and take this step together continuing the tradition of great partnership,” he said.

Melin shoveled the dirt alongside U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Austin Davis, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania; Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to the President and White House for infrastructure; Jaime A. Pinkham, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Mark Gentile, the president of Trumbull Corps; and Mary Ann Bucci, the executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

“The Southwestern Pennsylvania economy couldn’t function without the Montgomery Locks and Dam. I worked to secure this investment from the infrastructure law so the Army Corps can upgrade the locks and dam to keep commerce flowing through our region,” Casey said.

“This is a celebration of a commitment of investment to a critically important project, not only for Beaver County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, and not only for our commonwealth, but for a significant region of the United States,” he said.

Montgomery is part of the Upper Ohio navigation system, which sees 15 to 20 million tons of materials pass through its river chambers annually. The Upper Ohio Navigation Project is expected to support 28,800 jobs over its construction life, and 5,400 jobs annually after completion.

“The investment we make today will pay dividends, not for years or decades but for generations. Long, long overdue,” Casey said.

Overall, the Pittsburgh District operates 23 locks and dams on the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers, saving shippers and consumers approximately $4 billion in transportation costs compared to using other means such as trucks or rail.

“Our inland waterways are a critical artery sustaining the nation's economy and families by delivering goods to our homes, connecting us to global markets, and bolstering employment. The investments we are making today will reinvigorate navigation and make it resilient to provide significant benefits for years to come,” Pinkham said.

The Corps of Engineers started constructing Montgomery Locks and Dam in 1932 and finished in 1936. The auxiliary lock has reached the end of its operational lifespan and is experiencing structural aging.

Plans for a new chamber will bring new life to the facility thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has provided more than $900 million in funds for construction on the Upper Ohio River.

“What makes this project critical is the potential for structural failure of the lock walls, which would cause major interruption to river transportation,” said Chris Dening, the project manager for the construction of the Upper Ohio project.

“Many of the walls have significant cracking along and across their lengths. We have observed leaking within the lock walls during operation, which confirmed the seriousness of the situation,” Dening said.

If one of the lock walls failed, it would impact operations for several months. An unexpected failure would cause industry shippers to react, scrambling to find new ways to reroute shipments at the last minute.

“The upgrades we are making at Montgomery Locks and Dam are just the first of three major investments to modernize the upper Ohio River navigation system,” said Steve Fritz, the Mega Project program manager for the Pittsburgh District.

“We are building larger, newer, better locks that will provide a resilient navigation system in the Pittsburgh region for the next 100 years,” he said.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided a significant boost to a much-needed infrastructure investment on the upper Ohio River.

In the meantime, the Pittsburgh District has taken several measures to address structural issues to avoid sudden failures. Pittsburgh’s engineers increased the frequency of their inspections at Montgomery and developed contingency plans for any potential emergency.

“However, those contingency efforts are costly, which is why we need to recapitalize the lock with a new construction,” Dening said.

The new locks construction will directly benefit commercial navigation by replacing older, smaller chambers, avoiding future bottlenecks and slowdowns, and saving costs to transportation industries.

“The river navigation system provides a cost-effective method for transporting bulk commodities. It is also environmentally friendly and reduces road congestion,” Dening said.

Transporting commodities on the waterways is four times less expensive than trucks and 33 percent cheaper than rail. Towboats on Pittsburgh’s rivers can push up to 15 barges at once, each carrying the same amount of material as 70 large semi-trucks or 16 rail cars.

The Upper Ohio Navigation project includes three locks: Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery, the first three on the Ohio River downstream from Pittsburgh.

The BIL provided $857 million for Montgomery construction and $77 million for Emsworth in 2022.

The 2022 funding places the Ohio River as the second-largest funded infrastructure project within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The BIL helps alleviate the problem of inconsistent funding experienced in the past several decades, which has caused major inflation in timeline and project costs in the past. For example, the district had received only $40 million combined in the five previous years for the Upper Ohio project.

Montgomery is the first facility to receive a larger 600-foot-long by 110-foot-wide lock chamber on the Upper Ohio system. District engineers plan to replace the smaller auxiliary chamber at all three facilities.

“[What] brings us here today is moving commerce from ships to shelves. This is just an incredible waterway that’s critically important to the economy of the entire United States of America,” Landrieu said.

The economic impact of a one-year closure at Montgomery Locks and Dam would cost the U.S. economy nearly $180 million. The roughly 12 million tons of cargo would require over 100,000 railcars or 400,000 trucks to compensate for the closure.

The BIL funded the district for about half of the required cost up front, allowing Pittsburgh to begin work at Montgomery as early as 2024, significantly speeding up the district’s timeline for construction.

The navigation system also plays a vital role in the developing of local industry. The cargo includes mainly coal, but industry also transports coke, petroleum products, raw and finished steel, and aggregates. Various companies use the system to transport large components for construction in the Pittsburgh region.

“Some of these components could not have been transported by other means due to their size,” Dening said.

The average age of the three Upper Ohio facilities is 96 years old, with aging conditions that could lead to major navigation shutdowns. The auxiliary chambers at the three facilities are the smallest on the Ohio River, causing bottlenecks and slowdowns during maintenance periods, proving too small for today’s commercial barges.

The Pittsburgh District has already completed project phases to prepare for the upcoming chamber construction. The plan includes removing the auxiliary chamber to expand the lock size, which will cut into the gated dam currently on the river.

The next phase will bring a batch plant on site, allowing engineers to mix and pour concrete in place much faster than cement trucks. The new lock at Montgomery will require about 400,000 cubic yards of concrete, equivalent to a football field covered nearly 200 feet high, or 1.6 billion pounds. The plant will produce nine different concrete mixes used in various types of construction, such as underwater, structural, and mass concrete, among others. An onsite laboratory will sample and test the concrete to ensure quality.

“It’s taken over a decade of dedicated effort from an interdisciplinary team to get us here today,” Melin said.

“This team has developed and delivered a solid plan that we are now ready to execute,” he said We’re lucky to have the same team moving forward to deliver a quality product that will sustain the navigation needs of this region.”