Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Federal officials hail Pennsylvania dam renovation as a boost to local, national economy

US Senator Bob Casey talks about the impact of a nearly $860 million investment in the Montgomery Dam at a press event attended by White House infrastructure advisor Mitch Landrieu and Congressman Conor Lamb
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey talks about the impact of a nearly $860 million investment in the Montgomery Dam at a press event attended by White House infrastructure advisor Mitch Landrieu and Congressman Conor Lamb

Federal officials gathered at Beaver County’s Montgomery Dam Tuesday, hailing a nearly $860 million rehabilitation project as an investment in the local and national economy — one that will pay dividends for years after the work is finished next decade.

“We cannot move commerce, we cannot move commodities unless these locks and dams are repaired,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., at a press conference after touring the Ohio River lock and dam. Ensuring the facility's future “affects the entire country," he said. "But obviously, and especially, it affects the men and women who live in this county and in this region."

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Interested in development and transportation around the region? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

Cranes were already active at the dam site as officials toured it, though Army Corps of Engineers deputy district engineer Lenna Hawkins said it was preliminary engineering work that was paid for by an earlier appropriation. The project involves expanding what is now a secondary, narrower lock system to handle three barges floating side-by-side, rather than just the single file of barges it is now equipped for. The expansion will make that lock chamber as wide as the existing primary one — which will serve as a backup to the newly widened one.

Without the rebuild, officials say the dam has a 50 percent chance of failing before the end of the decade.

Hawkins said the principal danger is a crack in the foundation of the central wall between the two lock chambers. “If that were to go, it would be a big challenge,” she said. A fix in the 1980s “lasted a while, but it’s leaking again.” Thanks to repairs, “It should maintain for the next 10 years, but you just never know.”

Hawkins said there are 23 locks and dams in the Pittsburgh district, bounded by the river system’s watershed, and “We have some of the oldest locks and dams in the country.”

”We still have a ways to go," Hawkins said of the Montgomery and Emsworth dam projects, "but the Ohio River will be in pretty good shape."

That is essential to protect river shipping not just in Pittsburgh but downstream to the Mississippi River.

Mitch Landrieu, a top advisor to the Biden administration on infrastructure issues, noted that his home state of Louisiana is at the end of that river network.

“It is a nationwide system. And if one piece of it's not working, none of it's working,” Landrieu said. The project, he added, was just one face of $17 billion in federal investment coming to the state — investments that include infrastructure, airport renovations, expanded broadband access and green technology.

Between the infrastructure bill and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, Landrieu said, “We're going to move American people to and from where they want to go faster, lower people's prices, give folks access to health care, give people access to knowledge. … This is how we get stuff from ships to shelves.”

As evidence of the local impact, Congressman Conor Lamb pointed to just upstream, where the Shell ethane “cracker” plant is visible from the dam. Shell needed to transport equipment by water to build the sprawling facility, he said, and “A single instance of failure in this lock could have affected thousands of jobs at that site.”

He said the funding also showed that it was still possible to navigate with bipartisan consensus in Washington. At least where infrastructure is concerned: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act received 13 Republican votes in the House and 19 in the Senate before reaching Biden’s desk.

“If you're someone that watches the nightly news and thinks that Washington is only about people fighting with each other and not actually doing the nation's business, I can forgive you for thinking that,” Lamb said. “But you are wrong because important things like this happen every now and then, and they will change the history of our region for the better.”

Still, announcements of federal dollars always have a political resonance. The Montgomery Dam overhaul won't be complete until 2034. But with a crucial midterm election just a few months away — and the White House reportedly feeling that announcements like Tuesday’s give it a chance to take credit for its policy wins — some of this infrastructure spending might smooth the Democrats’ road to November.

"As someone who voted for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, because not everybody in our delegation did,” Casey stressed, “there wouldn't have been a bill if it weren't for one person. The President of the United States, President Joseph R. Biden, led the effort to get the infrastructure bill on the table. Presidents for generations in my lifetime have talked about it, but one president got it done.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.