ADAM SHULL | The Sun
Parts of the old wickets from Dams 52 and 53 sit in view of the new Olmsted Locks and Dam at Olmsted, Ill., (background) in a photo taken two weeks ago.
ADAM SHULL | The Sun
This 66-foot tall shell is to be moved into the Ohio River, where it will become part of the new Olmsted Locks and Dam at Olmsted, Ill. Heavy rains and flooding didn't set back construction of the more than $2 billion project under way by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
OLMSTED, Ill. — On May 11, the lock at Olmsted Locks and Dam in Olmsted, Ill., was 25 feet under water.
Record flooding in the spring along the Ohio River created delays and halted some work on one of the largest construction projects on the busiest stretch of river for commerce in the U.S.
High water forced workers to move equipment on the river bank to higher ground. A main power source to one of the site’s plants was cut off and replaced with a generator.
Some work ground to a halt, unable to be done in high water and rain, meaning some of the site’s 420 workers had to be laid off for weeks, said William Gilmour, the Olmsted project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps maintains the nation’s locks and dams.
Through all of that, the work to replace Dams 52 and 53 is still on the same target completion date given last year, Gilmour said.
The completion remains set for 2016 at a cost of just over $2 billion, Gilmour said.
“That’s as solid (an estimate) as I can give pending no more floods, no more droughts and Congress not cutting our money to nothing and the economy staying around where it’s at,” Gilmour said.
News that record flooding didn’t significantly push back construction at Olmsted is welcome to the corps and the marine industry, both eager to replace outdated locks and dams. Dam 52, near Brookport, Ill., was completed in 1928, and is the epitome of what the marine industry calls one of the most antiquated infrastructure systems in America. The outdated locks at Dams 52 and 53 delay commercial river traffic and create significant costs for shippers, costs that are passed on to consumers.
The project was conceived as a $775 million job in 1998 dollars. The corps claimed inconsistent funding has contributed to the delays. Shippers on the river refer to the project as an example of a broken business model for river system maintenance.
“We should be embarrassed by how long it takes us as a country to complete construction projects like this,” said Steve Little, president of Paducah’s Crounse Corp. Little is also chairman of the Inland Waterways Users Board, which advises the federal government on river commerce.
Half of the money for lock-and-dam work comes from congressional appropriations. The other half comes from the $85 million that barge companies pay annually in diesel fuel taxes. Commercial waterway users pay a 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax that goes into a trust. That trust fund was down to $38 million as of April, according to the users board. The fund is in jeopardy of being emptied, and its diminutive total has the corps slowing down on projects around the country.
The corps can only afford to continue work at Olmsted, and rehabilitation work at Markland Locks and Dam in the Louisville district, and at Emsworth Locks and Dam in Pennsylvania, according to Carol Labashosky, corps spokeswoman in Louisville.
Labashosky said the corps received $142.9 million in that past fiscal year for the Olmsted project. Gilmour said the corps is requesting $150 million for 2012.
Gilmour said workers should complete the tainter gate, which controls water flow for the Olmsted Dam, by 2012. Last year, workers installed five of the six shells, some as large as 124-foot by 115-foot, needed to build the gate.
Little led a study alongside the corps looking at why the funding system for waterway projects is broken and how it can be fixed. The resulting report, given to Congress and the assistant secretary of the Army, recommended an increase to the fuel tax, and more money (about $270 million) from Congress to provide more steady funding.
The users board approved the report, which 20 U.S. senators and 200 companies support.
“It’s in the administration’s lap,” Little said about the report. “We’re still waiting for a response.”
Contact Adam Shull, Sun business editor, at 270-575-8653.