Olmsted Locks are opening to benefit Ohio River traffic

DAVID ZOELLER | The Sun

Capt. Jeremy Nichols, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' executive officer on the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, updates the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce on the project's status Thursday morning.

The much-anticipated opening of the Olmsted Locks and Dam later this summer will greatly increase traffic on the lower Ohio River, particularly in and around Paducah.

Capt. Jeremy Nichols, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' executive officer on the project, provided an Olmsted update at Thursday's Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce Power in Partnership breakfast at the Julian Carroll Convention Center.

Having Olmsted Locks and Dam operational will result in a four-fold traffic increase on the Ohio, according to Nichols. The Corps will be able to pass traffic in both directions and through the queue in a single direction much faster.

The project was authorized by the Water Resources Development Act of 1988 and experienced several construction and funding delays since ground was broken in 1993. The roughly $3 billion Olmsted project will replace the 90-year-old Locks and Dams 52 and 53, located at Brookport and Grand Chain in Illinois.

"It's been several years in the making, and now we're glad to finally do it this year," Nichols said.

The Paducah chamber has always advocated for funding of the Olmsted project, said Sandra Wilson, chamber president.

"We go to D.C. at least once a year and are always in contact with our members of Congress," she said. "This has been a priority project, and we're really proud to see it finishing. I know it will be very beneficial for a lot of companies in Paducah."

A ribbon-cutting is planned Aug. 29 to mark Olmsted becoming operational, according to Nichols. More work needs to be done in the months after, however, to complete the the project.

In an overview of construction on the project, Nichols said there have been about 1.5 million construction man-hours each year, and 50,000 crane hours.

"We've done more than 14,000 hard-hat dives to date. That's quite a task if you do something 14,000 times and you've never made a mistake," he said. "And that's in the Ohio River, where you can't see your hand in front of your face."

The lower 46 miles of the Ohio River, from below the Smithland Locks and Dam all the way down to Cairo, Illinois, is considered the hub of the inland waterways transportation system.

"About 90 million tons of cargo and 6,500 vessels move through that area in a year," Nichols said.

"That's a very significant amount, and it's very important that it's maintained and operational and safe."

Limestone is the No. 1 commodity that passes through by barge annually at 6.8 million tons, following closely by coal at 6.7 million tons. Corn and soybeans account for about 3.2 million tons each.

To illustrate how much cargo is moved by barge, Nichols said Olmsted averages 17.8 tows per day.

"Each tow is equal to 21/4, 100-unit trains, or 1,050 semi trucks," he said. "And if all those trucks were bumper-to-bumper, they would be 14 miles long."

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