Pittsburgh District Breaks Ground on First Step in Updating Aging Navigation System on Upper Ohio River

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 groundbreaking ceremony at the Montgomery Locks and Dam facility Aug. 11, 2023.

Although construction has started, the event officially marked Phase One, the batch concrete plant construction of the Upper Ohio project.

“It’s only fitting that we lift our shovels and take this step together, continuing the tradition of great partnership,” said Col. Nicholas Melin, Commander of the Pittsburgh District.

Col. Nicholas Melin (right), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District commander, talks to guests during a group tour of Montgomery Locks and Dam prior to a groundbreaking ceremony in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Aug. 11, 2023. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET
The Upper Ohio Navigation Project is a multi-billion-dollar construction project that will replace locks at Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery locks and dams. The project will replace the auxiliary chambers, measuring 56 feet wide by 360 feet long, with locks measuring 110 feet wide by 600 feet long.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret)

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,” 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.”

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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 USACE team expects the Upper Ohio Navigation Project 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,” 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, providing significant benefits for years to come,” Pinkham said.

Austin Davis, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania; Col. Nicholas Melin, the commander of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Pittsburgh; U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Jaime A. Pinkham, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to the president and White House for infrastructure; Mary Ann Bucci, the executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission; and Mark Gentile, the president of Trumbull Corps participate in a groundbreaking ceremony at Montgomery Locks and Dam in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Aug. 11, 2023. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

The Corps of Engineers finished construction of Montgomery Locks and Dam in 1936. The auxiliary lock is experiencing structural issues associated with aging. 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.

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.

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 semitrucks or 16 rail cars.

“[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 more than 100,000 railcars or 400,000 trucks to compensate for the closure.

This 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

This article is featured in the 2023-2024 edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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