Unlocking Progress: Pittsburgh’s Mega Project Takes Shape with Key Contractors Visiting Ohio River Locking Facility

The Pittsburgh region is unlocking progress on the Ohio River by constructing a new navigation chamber to replace a smaller, aging lock that has been operating since 1936.

Approximately 80 contractors from around the country traveled to Monaca, Pennsylvania, to visit the Montgomery Locks and Dam and get eyes on the facility Feb. 2, before submitting construction proposals, due by the end of April.

Gregory Sies, a contracting officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, provides a briefing to a group of contractors from various construction companies during a site visit at the Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Feb. 2, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

“It’s a big deal for us in the district, and it’s a really big deal for the region,” said Col. Nicholas Melin, the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, to a group of contractors during their visit.

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The contractors will submit project proposals to replace the aging and deteriorated 56-foot-wide by 360-foot-long auxiliary chamber with a new 110-foot-wide by 600-foot-long primary chamber. The project is the first of three lock constructions in the Upper Ohio Navigation Project.

A towboat pushes nine barges of coal into the Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Monaca, Pennsylvania. Between 15 and 20 million tons of cargo travels on the upper Ohio River each year, which includes mainly coal but also coke, petroleum products, raw and finished steel, and aggregates. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

“This site visit allows contractors to come out and see the site and get a better idea of what they may need to consider when they put their proposals together,” said Chris Dening, the project manager for Montgomery with the Pittsburgh District. “This is an important step in our solicitation process. It’s very important to us, because the more information they have, the better proposal they’re going to develop.”

Between 15 and 20 million tons of material pass through the upper Ohio River system annually. More than half of the commodities passing through the region are coal used for power generation and steel production.

Brian Lucarelli, a concrete materials engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, shakes hands with a construction worker during a site visit at the Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Feb. 2, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

“The waterways are an important part of our infrastructure in our transportation system,” Dening said. “Every time you see barges on the river, that’s trucks that are not on our roads clogging up traffic and deteriorating our roadways.”

The district estimates construction projects at the Montgomery Locks and Dam will support 15,000 jobs across an array of fields, such as engineers and construction laborers.

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The district had previously hosted an industry day for contractors to visit the site in June 2022. That visit allowed companies to submit questions and provide feedback on the project. During industry day, the lock design was approximately 60 percent complete.

“The contractors have been keyed into this project for a while now,” said Dening. “We maintain our relationship with contractors to make sure they’re aware of what’s coming down the pipeline each step of the way.”

Col. Nicholas Melin, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, welcomes a group of contractors from various construction companies during a site visit at the Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Feb. 2, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

Now that the design for the lock has reached 100 percent completion, the district hosted the contractors for another visit, moving into the active acquisition phase.

“We are careful to ensure all the contractors receive the same information because we want every contractor to have the same chance and fairness as they go through this process,” Dening said.

The district received $934 million in funding for the Upper Ohio Navigation project through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The funding helps the district avoid breaking the construction into smaller segments and reduces redundancy in overlapping contracts, which can increase cost and extend project timelines.

Construction contractors listen to a brief from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District during a site visit at the Montgomery Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Feb. 2, 2024. USACE PHOTO BY MICHEL SAURET

The BIL funding ensures crucial inland navigation facilities will continue to provide the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly means of moving bulk commodities on the Ohio River for decades to come.

Transporting commodities on the waterways is four times less expensive than trucks and 33 percent cheaper than using rail. Towboats can push up to 15 barges on the river at once. A single barge can hold the same amount of material as 70 large semi-trucks or 16 rail cars. A 15-barge tow would be equivalent to more than a thousand semi-trucks on the road, causing 13.9 miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

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The district expects construction for the new lock to begin by 2025.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has really opened the opportunity to recapitalize infrastructure along the Ohio River, fit for purpose for the next century,” Melin said.