The director of the Port of Pittsburgh offered a primer to senators Thursday about the importance of the inland waterways and about the declining state of the locks and dams infrastructure across the river system.

Speaking at a hearing before the Senate Finance subcommittee on International Trade, Customs and Global Competitiveness, Mary Ann Bucci said that the United States has the “world’s preeminent inland waterways transportation and port system.” It covers 12,000 miles of navigable waterways and transported more than 550 million tons of cargo valued at $300 billion in 2016.

But, Bucci added, the system is under enormous strain.

“America’s inland waterways system is number one in the world, but is not without its challenges, as international competitions continues to improve their systems and facilities,” she told the hearing called to examine trade and commerce at U.S. ports of entry.

“More than half of the locks and dams on the U.S. inland system are past their 50-year design life, with most locks and dams built in the 1930s and under the New Deal of President Roosevelt. In fact, Pittsburgh has some of the oldest locks and dams in the nation,” she said. “Some segments, particularly older portions located on the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Tennessee rivers, rely on antiquated 600-foot long locks that are unable to accommodate today’s standard 15-barge tows, impacting shippers’ efficiency and competitiveness to reach the world stage.”

Bucci said the needs are great: stable funding for maintenance, operations, dredging and channel and harbor improvements.

She explained that there are 25 high-priority inland projects that are either underway or awaiting construction. A top priority is located near Pittsburgh – the Lower Monongahela Locks 2, 3 and 4. This project will replace three nearly 100-year-old locks and dams.

“The problem is that the process to construct lock and dam projects in three to six years as it was in the 1930s, today takes decades,” she said. “The Lower Mon project is going on its 24th year of construction, a project that should have been completed in 10 years.”

When finished, it will only offer one reliable lock chamber. The cost was to be $750 million with a completion date of 2004; it’s now estimated at $1.23 billion with a completion date of 2023. Finishing the second chamber and completing a railroad modification, would bump the cost to $1.67 million, and a completion date of 2061.

“For Pittsburgh and America to stay competitive in foreign markets, we must get back to construction navigation projects in less than five years,” she said.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., remarked that “we don’t have much appreciation for the (river) system in Washington.” He praised the barge industry for advocating a 9-cent increase in the diesel fuel paid into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund in order to keep funding flowing for infrastructure improvements.

He asked Bucci to explain how that infusion of funds has benefited the waterways.

Bucci called the tax increase and a change in the federal cost-sharing formula for funding inland projects “a real turning point in moving projects forward.” She said construction of the Olmsted Lock and Dam project along the Ohio River in Kentucky was draining money from the Fund and other projects were put on hold. A shift in the funding formula approved by Congress to have the federal government pay more of Olmsted’s cost freed up Trust Fund money for other initiatives.

“That allowed four projects to be funded in the last five years,” she said, adding that full and efficient funding going forward is essential.

Asked by Casey to explain the role of the waterways in intermodal commerce, Bucci said that barges are part of the transportation supply chain, working closely with trucks and trains. “We don’t compete with rail and trucks, we’re one of the three pieces,” she said.

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.