Olmsted Locks and Dam ribbon to be cut Thursday
After decades of construction, the ribbon is scheduled to be cut Thursday on the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill., and Paducah, Ky.
The project is the largest in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a vital link in modernizing the nation’s inland waterway system that begins in the Midwest and ends in New Orleans. Only 17 miles downriver from Olmsted is the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers at Cairo, Ill.
Engineer officers from Fort Knox visit the project site in 2015. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Olmsted will replace Locks 52 and 53, which were constructed in the 1920s. The locks won’t be operational until October, but late August was selected for the ribbon-cutting ceremony because all the invited officials said they could attend on that date, Army Corps officials told reporters in late July during a tour organized by the Waterways Council Inc.
Scheduled to attend are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, and other officials.
The inland waters navigation industry is a co-sponsor of the opening ceremony.
Completion of the Olmsted Locks and Dam is important for many reasons. The old Locks 52 and 53 have malfunctioned for years, slowing traffic in grains and farm inputs and nonagricultural commodities, and in some cases leading industries to use rail or road transportation instead.
The Waterways Council maintains that shipping by barge is better for the environment and cheaper and faster than rail or road for agriculture and other users.
The Olmsted project began in 1987 but proved so difficult and so expensive that the Army Corps in 2013 wanted to shut it down, one waterways official told reporters. The original estimate was $775 million, but the final cost is expected to be about $3.1 billion.
With its location so vital to Kentucky, McConnell personally urged Congress to keep it going. The Army Corps also developed an innovative method of construction known as “in the wet,” meaning building could take place in the river rather than having to drain a section of it.
This saved $325 million, according to public affairs officer John Kelly, and speeded up the process because construction could go on whether the water was high or low.
Olmsted is also a major accomplishment for American labor at a time when unions are often challenged.
“North America’s Building Trades Unions applaud this amazing lock and dam achievement built by our brothers and sisters.” said NABTU President Sean McGarvey.
“From initial project planning all the way through today’s final ribbon-cutting ceremony, our members have never wavered in delivering ‘value on display, every day,’” McGarvey said.
“For over 30 years, we’ve deployed the highest skilled workers every day at Olmsted, putting in 45 million work hours to build and maintain this phenomenal infrastructure accomplishment.
“The building trades’ skilled labor have boosted the entire economy of the Ohio River Valley, and continue to put a floor under this region’s middle class by creating millions of jobs that provide family-supporting wages, worker training, protections, and benefits,” McGarvey said.
Betsy Barrett, the communications and marketing director for the National Building Trades Union, said that the safety protocols have been very strong.
There were more than 15,000 “hard-hat dives without an incident,” Kelly said.
Olmsted is expected to be fully operational in 2022, he said.
Col. Antoinette Gant, the commander of the Army Corps Louisville district, told reporters that “Olmsted is a unique animal that has been done differently than any other project. And there are portions of what we utilized in this construction that we can pass on to other lock and dam projects within the navigation system.”
That would be music to the ears of the waterways industry, which has complained that Olmsted was so expensive that the Army Corps and Congress did not fund other modernization projects that are vital since most of the nation’s locks and dams were built in the early 20th century.
As one industry official told reporters, “95 percent of commerce that goes overseas goes by water, and a lot of it starts on the inland waterways.”