PITTSBURGH – Despite the rain, a crowd of contractors traveled from around the country to be there. Some stood under a canopy as rain poured down. Others, who could not fit under the tent, stood in the rain while water droplets pelted their hard hats and steel-toed boots.
“Well, if it keeps raining like this, at least we’re wearing life jackets,” someone joked, pointing to the vests, a safety requirement for anyone visiting the locks around Pittsburgh.
The group had come to Montgomery Locks and Dam to attend the facility’s Industry Engagement Day. It was an opportunity to learn about a major construction project estimated to cost half a billion dollars. The 2022 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. provided the funding for the project.
Montgomery, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, is one of the oldest and smallest locks on the Ohio River. The locks were constructed from 1932 to 1936and the first barges passed through in 1936. Although the lock personnel are consistently performing preventative maintenance, the main lock has to shut down for repair on occasion, resulting in traffic passing through the smaller auxiliary chamber.
“Once they hit Montgomery, the navigation industry faces a considerable bottleneck,” said Chris Dening, the project manager.
The auxiliary chamber is 56 feet wide by 360 feet long. The aging and deteriorating chamber can fit only one barge at a time, which means a tow pushing nine barges might take nine hours or longer to pass through, instead of twenty or thirty minutes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed a larger chamber measuring 110 feet wide by 600 feet long to replace the auxiliary lock. Contractors visited the site to learn more about the construction needs and discuss challenges they may face throughout the contract in the coming years.
“We invited them here to help paint a good picture of the project. We want to get it right. We want the right contractors proposing, and part of that is making sure they understand the project, so they can make a well-informed decision,” said Dening.
The two main challenges the construction industry faces are inflation and labor shortages. The good news is the IIJA allocated $857.7 million specifically to Montgomery and the Upper Ohio Navigation project to fund multiple projects.
Whichever company wins the contract will need to demolish the auxiliary chamber and replace it with the longer and wider one, which will extend into a portion of the dam. The project will face electrical obstacles because much of the power runs from the other side of the river. Overall, construction is expected to take at least eight years to finish.
“Eight years is a long time for a single contract,” said Kirk McWilliams, the area engineer for the Pittsburgh District. “The contractor community’s input and feedback are critical in our ability to deliver a construction project of this magnitude.”
Throughout the construction period, the labor cost, materials and other factors could increase significantly. However, most contractors understand what it means to prepare a bid during this time of economic uncertainty, labor shortages and rising inflation.
To help buffer the impact of inflation, the Pittsburgh District includes an economic price adjustment clause in the contract, which helps account for cost changes in material such as concrete and steel if prices increase.
“The Pittsburgh District is excited about the opportunity to construct the new lock chamber at Montgomery with a single, fully-funded contract,” said McWilliams.
Ultimately, the project is an investment in the regional and national economy. Not only will it fund jobs, but it will offer lasting support to industries that rely on inland navigation.
Each year, Montgomery contributes $180 million in economic savings to industries that would otherwise transport commodities by trains or trucks, which are substantially more expensive than transporting goods on the river.
“We are proud to deliver a world-class facility to the nation that minimizes future operation and maintenance expenses and reduce transportation expenses,” said Cory Morgan, the lead engineer for the project with the Inland Navigation Design Center, which designed the lock.
The Pittsburgh district expects to open contract bidding in fall 2023 and award the contract by spring 2024.
“Close coordination with the navigation industry and construction contractors is vital to the success of the project and a priority for navigation on the upper Ohio River,” Morgan said.