NO SPARE Slow funding of construction means new McAlpine lock (center) may not be completed before 2011, critics say. (Photo courtesy of USACE)

A two-week scheduled closing of the Ohio River at Louisville, Ky., for the emergency repair of a navigation lock is expected to halt the transport of more than 2 million tons of cargo as well as affect tourism and shipping-dependent industries both up and down the river. Calling the closing a crisis, critics claim the economic disruption is the direct result of chronic underfunding of infrastructure on the nation’s waterways.

Divers inspecting the 250-ton gates at McAlpine Lock and Dam in late April or May discovered "a pretty significant crack" in one of the lower gates on the north side, says Col. Robert A. Rowlette Jr., commander and district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District. Subsequent dives persuaded officials that conditions warranted completely closing the lock for emergency repairs to forestall failure of the structure. Instead of 14 days to repair the gates, complete replacement would take 45 days, they estimate.

On Aug. 9, the lock was closed and bulkheads or metal walls were lowered at each end to create a dam effect. After dewatering, the plan is to keep "a couple of welders" working around the clock welding steel plates over the cracked webbing, which is near the bottom pintel or hinge, says Carol Baternick, district spokeswoman. "We’ve assembled a team of 106 workers, including expert welders from our Pittsburgh and Nashville districts," says Rowlette. "The problem is, there’s just not physically enough space around those cracks that we know about to get anybody else in there" to get the work done any faster.

McAlpine’s existing 110 x 1,200-ft lock was built in 1961, supplementing a 110 x 600-ft lock built in 1931 and an older 56 x 360-ft lock. Work began in 1996 to prepare the site for demolition of the small locks and construction of a new 110 x 1,200-ft replacement lock. In September 2002, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $232-million unit-price contract for the new construction to TGM Constructors, a joint venture sponsored by Traylor Brothers Inc., Evansville, Ind., that includes Granite Construction Co., Watsonville, Calif., and Massman Construction Co., Kansas City.


Demolition of the auxiliary chamber in January 2001 left McAlpine with only the single functioning lock. But officials were alert for problems. Similar facilities at Greenup and Markland, two other Ohio River locks, have experienced "continuing problems with the gates, where you see cracks appear and you need pretty steady maintenance and repair," says Rowlette.

After extensive consultations with the public, the Louisville District set the closing for Aug. 9 to 22. With more than 10 weeks’ warning, water carriers moved 1,250 loaded barges and positioned 550 empty barges.

But shipping-dependent industries are not happy. "This situation is the result of a drawn-out period for construction of a second lock at McAlpine because federal funding has been less than is needed for completion of the second lock on schedule," says a report by the Waterways Council Inc., Arlington, Va. "The second lock was originally authorized in the early 1990s. If its schedule would have been maintained, it would be open by now, and closure of the existing McAlpine Lock for repairs would have little effect.".