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Posted 8/22/2009

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By John Neville


U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell made his first trip to the Olmsted Locks and Dam construction site Aug. 20 to hear a briefing from Louisville District leaders about the importance of annual sustained funding for the project.

The Olmsted site is located along the Ohio River shores near Olmsted, Ill., between Paducah, Ky., and Cairo, Ill., and is known as the “hub” of the inland waterways system. Barge traffic moving between the Mississippi River system and the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers must pass through this stretch of river. More tonnage passes this point than any other place in America’s inland navigation system.

“There is no more important project in the country, in terms of cost benefit ratio,” McConnell said. “…the challenge for me and other members of Congress who are interested in this is to keep the funding going. To the extent that you can’t get the money on an annual basis, it delays the project and ends up costing more. So, our goal is to meet the annual challenges to keep the project on schedule as best as possible. I and others in congress are going to do everything we can to keep this project on schedule.”

Ninety million tons of goods pass through Lock and Dam 52 and 80 million tons pass through Lock and Dam 53 annually. Olmsted will replace the 1920s-era 52 and 53, sites that are well-beyond their 50-year life cycle. While new 1,200-foot locks were added later, the antiquated design and age of these structures make it impossible to meet current traffic demands without significant delays.

The District conducted condition surveys on its locks and dams that measured the risks and consequences of lock and dam failure within the entire inland waterways locks and dams systems. Based on the Corps’ analysis, a shutdown of 52 or 53 would result in major economic losses for the nation, according to District Deputy Engineer David Dale.

“Fifty-two and 53 are high risk,” Dale explained to Senator McConnell. “That means, there is a high likelihood that they could impact the systems operation. A critical piece of equipment could fail and prevent locking and that could shut the river down. When we look at the system we determine that Olmsted is a very critical piece of the system both from the benefits generated and from the risk of not being able to provide navigational transportation services to the nation.”

Following the briefing, District leaders led McConnell on a site tour where he was able to see the enormity and complexity of the project firsthand. The tour stopped at the 5,100-ton capacity gantry crane (the largest of its kind in the world) that is required to carry the massive concrete shells from the precast yard to the skiff.

There, Louisville District Commander Col. Keith Landry presented McConnell a framed, aerial photograph of the McAlpine Locks and Dam near Louisville.

“The senator has been a strong advocate of the navigation industry and great friend and supporter of the inland waterways system and the Corps,” Landry said.

Following the presentation, McConnell spoke to a gathered press pool about the importance of the Olmsted project and how he plans to support its completion. McConnell’s position as senate minority leader and representative for the Commonwealth can significantly influence Olmsted funding.

McConnell also took a moment during his press address to recall one of the Corps’ most famous engineers, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and comment on the advances in engineering since the Civil War era.

“I wonder what he would think if he were alive today and able to see the technology in this day and age,” he said. “These folks are using the most modern technology around, and it’s fascinating to hear them describe it and witness the genuine excitement they have to accomplish something of this magnitude.”