PITTSBURGH – Industry experts, inland navigation stakeholders, government officials and more stepped off the bus and walked over to a welcome station where they donned life jackets and hard hats.
Most members, stakeholders, and government officials already knew one another, but some shook hands as leaders in the shipping industry introduced themselves to federal employees and military officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The most important thing to remember is we’re not here to decide what is best for our industries or what is best for the Army Corps, but to do whatever is best for the nation,” said Martin Hettel, vice president of government affairs for the American Commercial Barge Lines.
The group visiting the construction site at the Charleroi Locks and Dam was the Inland Waterways Users Board (IWUB). IWUB is an advisory committee made up of both industry and federal members representing all fuel-taxed inland waterways systems within the United States. They represent the commercial traffic on rivers transporting commodities like grain, coal, construction material, fuel and other goods across the nation for use domestically and abroad.
“We came to Pittsburgh because these people represent the industries that pay a designated fuel tax of about $130 million a year that cost-shares all these projects,” said Mark Pointin, the executive secretary of IWUB, who is also a federal employee with the Army Corps.
The navigation industry contributes to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund through fuel taxes on transported commodities. The tax revenue helps pay for maintenance and major construction of locks and dams.
“Everything we do has extreme value to the nation. It’s the silent transportation mode no one notices, but we affect everything that comes from overseas, either in or out of our ports, and everything that moves domestically on the waterways,” Pointin said.
Industries share the cost with the federal government at a split of 65 percent federal and 35 percent from diesel fuel taxes from shipping vessels. Shippers contribute 29 cents for every gallon used to transport goods on the water, which adds to the trust fund to reinvest in navigation infrastructure.
IWUB makes recommendations to Congress and the Secretary of the Army on how to use the trust fund to construct new or rehabilitate inland navigation infrastructure.
“They [IWUB] have a big stake in what we do with the money they contribute,” said Steve Fritz, the Mega Projects program manager for the Pittsburgh District. “Meeting with them helps us cross-pollinate to discuss priorities and identify the most important facilities that need funding.”
During IWUB’s tour of the Charleroi Locks and Dam, the Pittsburgh District held various stations to discuss not only the construction of a new 720-foot-long by 84-foot-wide navigation chamber, near Charleroi, on the Monongahela River. The project is nearly complete, but the tour also highlighted the upcoming construction of a 600-foot-long by 110 foot-wide lock chamber on the Ohio River.
Both construction sites are considered part of the district’s Mega Project portfolio due to their complexity and cost. The new lock at Charleroi is projected to open to navigation next year as part of a navigation project called the Lower Mon Project, involving two other locks on the lower portion of the Monongahela River.
“The trust fund helped pay for the construction of the Lower Mon project,” Pointin said. “[They IWUB] tour locations they’ve helped fund, in association with holding official board meetings, so they can see their money at work.”
During the tour, the lead engineer for the Upper Ohio project, Cory Morgan, from the Inland Navigation Design Center also offered a view of digital modeling for lock designs. He briefed the group on how the Army Corps continues to improve efficiency and quality in construction with each project.
“The key thing is engaging stakeholders in all aspects of our design and construction projects, keeping them aware of our process, the funding and support needs, and involve them in the process to work closely with the Corps to achieve better results,” said Morgan.
Many of the briefings stressed the importance of collaboration and transparency so stakeholders have a better understanding of construction timelines, costs, and challenges such as inflation, and supply chain delays.
“In regards to transparency, it’s always better for our planning efforts to know what kind of maintenance we have planned that would decrease the probability of unscheduled closures, what construction schedules we have, and how our long-term planning affects their businesses and economic commerce on the river,” Morgan said.
IWUB members meet officially three to four times a year, typically visiting major ports or navigation hubs around the country, such as New Orleans, the Lower Snake River locks and dams, the Illinois waterways, and most recently Pittsburgh, known as the Headwaters District due to it serving as the navigation starting point for the rest of the country.
“We have a lot of navigation facilities here in the Pittsburgh region,” Fritz said. “The IWUB helps prioritize navigation from a national standpoint because they coordinate navigation projects throughout the country. Meeting together helps them integrate and inform Congress on what they believe are national priorities, which helps get the money to the right places at the right time.”