Long maligned Olmsted Lock and Dam gets a boost

Finally, some good news to report about the much-criticized and extremely over-budget and long delayed lock and dam construction project on the Ohio River at Olmsted, Ill.

That “damn”project just might get finished a few years earlier than the latest projections, and, amazingly enough, for less money than the excessively over-budget estimates.

That’s the word of the Inland Waterways Users’Board, a federal advisory committee, which outlines the new assessment in its 2014 annual report, published in December.

John Doyle, a Washington attorney and lobbyist for the Waterways Council, Inc., an industry-supported group that advocates for waterways funding, alerted me to this development in a conversation after WCI held a press briefing on Wednesday to outline its priorities for the new year.

So I took a look at the User Board’s report.

“No inland waterway modernization project in recent years has been the subject of more critical attention by the Board and others than the Olmsted project,”report states. “Despite receiving disproportionately large infusions of funding from Congress for many years, the story of Olmsted has been a story of constantly escalating project cost and even-more-delayed projections of when the Olmsted project will be completed.”

But, the report continues, “there are unmistakable signs emerging that the final chapters of the Olmsted story may be written differently.”

It says that work schedule by the Corps in 2014 has proceeded on or ahead of schedule. All 18 of the tainter gate shells for the dam have now been set. The first tainter gate has been delivered and installed and the second is being fabricated. Three more have been released for fabrication and early delivery, and work on the navigable pass has started.

Considered one of the biggest construction jobs in the country, the project serves one of the busiest commercial waterways in the country. Barges haul about 90 million tons a year of agriculture, coal, petroleum and other products through the area. Delays through the 1920s-era locks cause traffic jams a long as five miles long.

“Progress this year has proceeded so well that, if it continues, the Corps envisions a reduction in Olmsted’s current $3.1 billion cost estimate, with construction of the dam to be completed and operational in October 2018 —  and the entire project completed in March 2022, two and one-half years earlier than the Corps had estimated. 

I asked Doyle why he thought this was happening. He theorized that since the federal government has taken over 85 percent of the financial responsibility of the project under a congressional directive passed last year, the Corps has more incentive to get it done and trim costs.

For whatever reason, this is good news. We’ll be watching to see if the Corps can live up to its latest prediction and not disappoint.

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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