Congress’ $1.3 trillion spending bill could mean good things for Pennsylvania waterways

A towboat pushes barges on the Monongahela river past the skyline of downtown Pittsburgh, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

A towboat pushes barges on the Monongahela river past the skyline of downtown Pittsburgh, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Last week’s 2,200-page omnibus congressional spending bill nearly doubled funding for construction work led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Exactly how the money will be allocated is still being determined by Army Corps’ headquarters.

But both the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia District offices are optimistic that some of their most pressing initiatives will see funding.

The Army Corps has a range of duties, said Steve Fritz, mega project program manager for the Pittsburgh District.

“We have navigation responsibilities, flood damage reduction responsibilities, environmental responsibilities,” he said. “So there’s always a demand for more money to get these projects completed as efficiently as they can be.”

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One of the Pittsburgh region’s priorities is tothe Lower Mon project, which is replaceing outdated infrastructure at three locks and dams on the Monongahela River. Maintaining navigation there is essential for the region’s well-being, said Fritz.

“Unfortunately, the benefits of the river system aren’t really well-known by the general public,” he said. “They see barges going up and down the river and they don’t realize that those barges are pushing coal that’s going to make power so that they can heat their home or turn their lights on.”

In Philadelphia, officials hope to see funding to complete a long-running project to deepen the Delaware River channel from 40 feet to 45 feet. That would allow bigger cargo ships to reach the port.

“We’re in the final year or so of this project,” said Ed Voight, spokesperson for the Army Corps’ Philadelphia District.

There is some additional work to be done blasting and removing rock from the site, said Voight. Until Army Corps headquarters finalizes a work plan, he could not say for sure if the project would receive the funding it needs.

“If the Corps is close to finishing a project it generally tries to do so,” he said. “Anybody does. If you’re 90 percent done on a major project, you’re usually going to finish it.”

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said improving navigation on Pennsylvania’s waterways is crucial. But added the state’s roads, bridges and airports need attention, too.

“We’ve got a lot to do and frankly not nearly enough revenue to do what we would hope to do,” he said.

Casey said he still hopes to see a broader national infrastructure bill.

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