The threat of rain earlier in the week failed to put a damper on the much anticipated ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the new Olmsted Locks and Dam, Aug. 30, 2018, in Olmsted, Illinois. The event, hosted by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Louisville District, was a celebration of the multibillion-dollar project expected to bring reliable navigation to the Ohio River, offering millions of dollars of economic gains annually.
Olmsted Locks and Dam and the Ohio River create a strategic region providing a connection between the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. According to national inland waterway statistics, more tonnage passes through the region than any other place in America’s inland navigation system. Over 1,000 event attendees witnessed the first commercial barge pass through the new lock as a scheduled part of the festivities.
“Once fully operational, Olmsted will provide much-needed reliability and an average annual economic benefit of approximately $640 million per year,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It will be the lynchpin of our country’s incredible inland waterways system.”
Given the significance of the locks and dam to the U.S. economy, labor force and industry, some elected officials, labor organizations and industry leaders attended the event, demonstrating the project’s huge impact to a broad audience.
According to Sean McGarvey, North America’s Building Trades Unions President, the Building Trades’ skilled labor boosted the economy of the Ohio River Valley and continues to support the region’s middle class by creating millions of jobs that provide family-supporting wages, worker training, protections and benefits.
“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,” said Garvey. “For over thirty 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 Corps’ 54th Chief of Engineers and Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite said improving navigation is one of the organization’s earliest civil works missions, which dates back to the early 1800s.
“We have relentlessly delivered unmatched reliability for America’s farmers, manufacturers, shippers, vessel operators and consumers,” said Semonite. “Today, 98 percent of overseas trade, with a value of $2 trillion, moves through Corps of Engineers projects.”
Semonite said that the Olmsted project reflects the Army Corps of Engineers’ strategic plan to build structures of this kind more efficiently and less costly while sharing best practices across the Corps enterprise so that every new design adopts only the best aspects of a completed project.
Great Lakes and Ohio River Division Commander Maj. Gen. Mark Toy stated the nation is suffering from the effects of aging infrastructure. Within his division, there are lock and dam facilities that are more than 100 years old. These inland waterway facilities had an expected design lifespan of about 50 years; however, because of the dedication and outstanding work of the lock and dam operators and maintenance crews, said Toy, the Corps has continued to operate these facilities for the nation.
“Thanks to our team, the Olmsted Locks and Dam will ensure the viability of this commercial waterway so important to our nation’s economic security,” said Toy. “Everything we build, everything we do in USACE is about taking care of people.”
Col. Antoinette Gant, commander Louisville District, echoed Toy’s remarks. Gant, who has led the command of the Louisville District since July 2017, recognize the efforts of past and present members of the team.
“This project reflects the hard work and dedication of an incredible team,” said Gant. “I am proud of the Louisville District employees and contractors who have given of themselves to bring this project to fruition.”
The Corps leadership team recognized the main contractor, AECOM for its technical expertise, professionalism and resourcefulness during the formal presentation.
“From the beginning, we knew that safety, innovation, planning, communication and our people would be critical for this project,” said Kevin McLaughlin, project director AECOM. “As a contractor, seldom do you have the opportunity to work on a once-in-a-generation and, for some, a once-in-a-lifetime project like this, where the challenges were met by a united workforce.”
McClaughlin’s statements evoke historical significance, as the project is the largest Corps project since the Panama Canal. A small crowd of Corps retirees attended the ceremony, as many of them had spent the better part of their federal careers watching the Olmsted project evolve and develop over the years.
Olmsted Locks and Dam will eventually replace the old Ohio River locks and dams 52 and 53, completed in 1929. The existing dams have outlived their 50-year designs, making it impossible for these structures to meet current-day traffic demands along the river.
The new structure consists of two 110-foot by 1,200-foot locks, which are located adjacent to the Illinois bank, and a dam comprised of five tainter gates, which control the amount of water that flows downstream. Additionally, there are 140 wickets and a fixed weir.
Just like the Panama Canal was considered an engineering marvel of its time, the Olmsted Locks and Dam reflects a new marvel for this generation to look back on for years to come. The structure, which Corps engineers expect to last at least 100 years, will likely outlive all of the hardworking individuals who helped to make it a reality. A new legacy is in the making.
“Within the Corps, we are revolutionizing our culture to responsibly accelerate project delivery, optimize financing and budgeting, and improve permitting and regulatory activities,” said Semonite. “Olmsted stands as a shining example of what is possible when we all marshal our ingenuity, innovation and investment in a vital public good.”