WASHINGTON -- The Army Corps of Engineers is a big step closer to resuming work on the Lower Monongahela's crumbling locks and dams after a U.S. Senate vote Wednesday reauthorizing up to $12.5 billion in water projects over the next decade.
The Water Resources Development Act still must clear the House, but that chamber is working on its own version of the reauthorization. Congressional aides say the plan is to reconcile the plans later into a law both chambers can approve.
For the Pittsburgh region, approval would mean authorization to repair deteriorating waterways infrastructure.
Officials at the Pittsburgh office of the Army Corps of Engineers say locks and dams in the region desperately need to be overhauled. Without the Water Resources Development Act, all the agency can do are quick piecemeal fixes to emergent problems. That kind of unplanned work blocks barges from moving, and costs industries and transportation companies money.
If the Lower Monongahela locks and dams fail entirely, the economic repercussions could reverberate far beyond Allegheny County, said Ryan Fisher, outreach coordinator for the regional office.
"Barges would not be able to move through, which means if you're a coal company you have to put it on a truck and then you're going to be deteriorating roads and it's going to be costing you more as well," Mr. Fisher said. That translates into widespread increases in utility costs.
Twenty-two fully loaded barges pass through the Lower Mon each day. Over the course of a year, they carry more than 15 million tons of commodities, primarily coal.
Wednesday's vote is good news for other industries, too.
Thomas J. Gibson, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute, said the water development projects would create about 500,000 jobs.
The legislation also would equitably steer barge fuel fees to lock and dam projects, pilot an important infrastructure loan program and ensure money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund goes to ports and harbors rather than other programs.
"The steel industry applauds these provisions as we rely heavily on seaports and inland waterways to move raw materials necessary for steel making, and to move finished steel products to market," Mr. Gibson said.
Currently, seaports are heavily congested and not dredged to full capacity while the inland waterways infrastructure is obsolete and aging.
Congress is working on separate legislation to determine how to raise more money for river infrastructure improvements. One proposal sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania calls for an increase in fuel taxes, something barge operators say they're willing to pay in order to make it easier to transport goods by barge through a reliable system of locks and dams.
"When we hear the phrase 'locks and dams' in Pennsylvania -- especially southwestern Pennsylvania -- we don't think of some far-off concept. We think of commerce and the movement of commerce and the jobs and economic growth that comes from that," Mr. Casey said during floor debate.
Although nearly everyone on Capitol Hill agrees there's a need for infrastructure projects that prevent flooding, protect ports and keep commerce moving through inland waterways, the legislation struggled. The weeklong debate -- which ended Wednesday with passage in an 83-14 vote -- was filled with partisan rancor over a GOP pro-gun measure that Democrats said had no place in a water resources bill.
The amendment would have allowed firearms to be carried on federal lands controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers and located in states where concealed weapons are legal.
The Senate voted it down but allowed several others, including one aimed at slowing the spread of Asian carp and another requiring water projects to use American iron, steel and manufactured goods.
Wednesday was the first time in six years that either chamber has passed a reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act.
The legislation by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and David Vitter, R-La., would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to construct water projects that mitigate storm damage, restore ecosystems, reduce erosion and maintain waterways.
The legislation still has to make it through the House, where the Transportation Committee led by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, is crafting its own plan.
Mr. Shuster has said his committee's bill will include overhauls to streamline projects, keep costs low and benefit farms and factories exporting products in the global market.
The sticking points in moving the legislation have been how to pay for it, how to hold the Corps accountable for spending that could reach $12.5 billion over the next decade, and how to keep from opening the floodgates to the kinds of pork barrel projects that the 2010 earmark ban was meant to eliminate.
The Senate bill empowers the Corps of Engineers to decide which projects to fund. That's a power traditionally reserved for Congress.
Critics say the bill allows lawmakers to abdicate their responsibility to make decisions about how to spend tax dollars.
Supporters, meanwhile, say the bill would give the Corps more flexibility to fix projects faster.
"We decided we would no longer have earmarks, and that made this bill particularly difficult because normally we would mention the projects by name. [We] couldn't do that, so we had to figure out a way to move forward by making sure that we never listed any particular project. We did it in a good way," Ms. Boxer said during debate last week.
The bill also calls for several federal agencies to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of Asian carp in the Ohio River basin. American fisheries began importing carp from China in the 1970s because the fish keep commercial ponds clean. However, they adversely affect ecosystems in the wild.
"What we discovered is there is no single effort in the entire federal government that is responsible for coordinating a response to help minimize the risk" of Asian carp invading major rivers and the Great Lakes, said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who co-sponsored the carp amendment with Mr. Casey and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Mr. Casey also was the instigator behind another package of overhauls incorporated into the water bill. Those measures would increase the government's cost-share for major rehabilitation projects, develop a 20-year capital investment program for inland waterways projects, create a loan program for municipal drinking water projects, and increase federal funding to an expensive to an expensive Olmsted, Ill., waterways project in order to free up money from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for other projects including high-priority projects on the Lower Monongahela River in Braddock, Charleroi and Elizabeth.
A single project on the Ohio River in Olmsted currently receives about $147 million of the $170 million annual disbursement from the trust fund. Money for other projects has slowed to a trickle.