Pittsburgh Waterways Leadership in Action
Mary Ann Bucci, Executive Director

Pittsburgh has had its share of leaders throughout history recognized for their contributions to making our city and commonwealth stronger. But there is one, Senator Bob Casey, who continues to quietly strengthen our city, state and nation’s critically important inland waterways system from Pittsburgh and in Washington, DC.

While most of the country has generally been under lockdown with much of the attention of Congress focusing on COVID-19 response, there has been important bipartisan activity taking place that supports Pittsburgh and our region.

On May 6, the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously passed America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2020, which includes the biennial Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) addressing policy improvements to the nation’s water resources. Senator Casey played an integral part advocating for an important provision included within the bill that will help ensure that construction and major rehabilitation of lock and dam projects move forward more efficiently. The provision adjusts the cost-share for construction and major rehabilitation of inland waterways projects, from the current 50% Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) (funded from a diesel fuel tax paid for by commercial waterways operators)/50% General Revenues to 35% IWTF/65% General Revenues.

Since the Pittsburgh area has some of the oldest lock and dam infrastructure in the nation, modernizing the outdated structures will result in gains in efficiency, reliability and cost-savings that will benefit western Pennsylvania. For our region, Senator Casey’s leadership will ensure the completion of the Lower Monongahela 2,3,4 lock project in an efficient manner while also expediting the start time for the Upper Ohio River Navigation project to modernize Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery Locks.

Overall, the Port of Pittsburgh consists of 203 miles of navigable waterway, and supports 13 barge companies and approximately 160 river terminal facilities. It is the 27th busiest port in the U.S. and the fourth busiest inland waterway port. Each year more than 20 million tons of commodities move in and out of the port. The region’s locks themselves handle an average of more than 80 million tons of cargo each year (considering that cargo usually passes through several locks on each trip). The Ohio River locks alone handle more than 35 million tons per year, performing as many as 300 commercial lockages per month.

Throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the ports and waterways and waterway-related industries support nearly 256,000 jobs ultimately leading to $4.5 billion in state and local tax revenue.

Next up for WRDA is for the House of Representatives’ Transportation & Infrastructure Committee to move the bill. Another Pittsburgh champion, Rep. Conor Lamb, recently led a bipartisan letter advocating for a similar cost-share adjustment for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund that generated 78 signatures of House Members in support.

Both Senator Casey and Rep. Lamb understand that our inland waterways are a priceless natural national asset. Of the 12,000 miles of navigable waterways, nearly 11,000 miles comprise the fuel-taxed portion of the system on which commercial operators pay the aforementioned diesel fuel tax. In fact, commercial users successfully advocated to raise their fuel tax by 45% in 2014 to its current level of 29-cents-per-gallon, the highest federal fuel tax paid by any surface mode of transportation.

Beyond enabling waterborne transportation of critical cargoes, our inland waterways system aids in flood control, enables a stable water supply for nearby communities and industries, generates hydroelectric power, offers recreation opportunities such as fishing and water sports, provides regional economic development, increases property value, and enhances national security capabilities.

Leadership of the waterways is not new to Senator Casey, who has served in the Senate since 2007. A long-time champion, in 2014, he received a national Leadership Service Award presented by Waterways Council, Inc. and the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. In 2013, he was an original sponsor of “Reinvesting in Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways Act” of 2013 (RIVER), with six bipartisan cosponsors. His effort was instrumental in advancing The Water Resource Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 which helped create jobs by improve navigable inland waterways and ports.

Infrastructure may be a word that means all things to all people, but to our Senator Casey, it means support for legislation that improves our city and region’s locks and dams. In turn, that sustains and create jobs, and keeps commerce and cargo moving to domestic and international destinations. As our nation faces begins its COVID-19 economic recovery, our inland waterways will be called upon to continue to keep Pittsburgh – and America – moving forward.