Olmsted Is Corps’ Achievement, But Also Barge Industry’s
Even though the Olmsted Locks and Dam won’t be fully operational until late October, it is already working. Waylon Humphrey, deputy chief of operations at the Corps of Engineers, told members of the Inland Waterways Users Board in Paducah, Ky., that the 140 wickets at Olmsted could be raised as early as August 31 to create a pool and take pressure off of Ohio River Lock 52 so that its deconstruction could begin.
Olmsted is the largest and costliest civil engineering project in the Corps’ history. It is also one of the most needed. More tonnage passes through this point on the lower Ohio River than at any other on the inland waterways—90 million tons of commerce worth more than $10 billion annually, according to the Corps. It will replace the decaying and problem-prone Locks 52 and 53, and will reduce lockage times to 30 minutes from one or two hours. The effects of its opening will immediately be felt by American businesses, farmers and consumers alike, especially by those located on or near the Ohio and Tennessee rivers that use water transportation. The ripple effects will spread throughout the economy.
The journey to the August 30 ribbon-cutting for this historic engineering achievement has been full of twists and turns. The causes of these twists and turns were many, but they ultimately came down to how Congress funds (or doesn’t fund) major projects.
It was the passage of the 2014 Water Resources and Reform Development Act that turned the corner on Olmsted. It restored a proper funding stream and also freed up money for other projects from Olmsted, the “project that ate the waterways,” by mandating a one-time cost-share of 85 percent federal funding to 15 percent contribution from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, as opposed to the usual 50/50 split. That bill would not have been possible without the dedicated and intense involvement of barge industry leaders, working with the Corps and with members of Congress.
All the end users that rely on Olmsted, and on the inland waterways system of which it is a linchpin, will rightly celebrate its opening. Barge industry leaders will also celebrate. Then they will go back to helping the Corps apply its lessons to other lock and dam projects, and to communicate the ongoing necessity for waterways infrastructure funding reform to Congress.
But right now, the Corps of Engineers, its contractors, and not least, our barge industry leaders, should bask in their historic achievement.