NASHVILLE, Tenn. (June 7, 2016) – In only his third week on the job, the nation’s chief of engineers visited three high visibility construction projects today to meet employees and garner the very latest updates from project managers and team members.
Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commander, and chief of engineers, hopped on a Tennessee National Guard Blackhawk to travel between the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project and Kentucky Lock Addition Project in the Nashville District, and the Olmsted Locks and Dam Project in the Louisville District.
The general started the day at Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga, Tenn. Project Manager Adam Walker briefed him on the deteriorating old lock and the status of the new 110-foot by 600-foot lock where construction restarted in April. Crews are grouting in the coffer cells to reduce leakage through the existing coffer dam to reduce pumping requirements for future excavation. It is the first work on the site since the physical completion of the coffer dam in 2012.
The Tennessee Valley Authority completed construction of Chickamauga Lock and Dam in 1940. With a single chamber measuring 60-by-360 feet, the lock has since experienced structural problems resulting from alkali aggregate reaction between the alkali in the cement and the rock aggregate, which results in a physical expansion of concrete structures. Even with costly advanced maintenance procedures, the concrete expansion threatens the structural integrity of the lock and limits its life span.
“There’s a multitude of cracks on the project,” Walker said. “This lock through the course of its life has actually grown about 12 inches longer than it was and about four inches taller than it used to be in certain areas.”
Walker explained that the Nashville District and TVA have developed incredible solutions over the last two decades to keep the lock functioning in spite of its concrete growth problem.
When the new lock is constructed, it will significantly reduce lockage times (by increasing its capacity by a factor of nine). It will also make it unnecessary to fund aggressive maintenance at the existing lock, which is now necessary due to concrete growth.
John McCormick, vice president of Safety, River Management and Environment at TVA, told the general that the partnership between TVA and the Nashville District has been very good in working together to keep a lock open that is in bad shape and keep the waterway open for commerce and a lot of recreational traffic.
“There are 31 terminals and many businesses upstream that rely on the lock,” McCormick said.
Lt. Col. Stephen Murphy, Nashville District commander, said the Corps of Engineers along with industry and academic experts have developed innovative solutions to maintain the current lock and one that engineers believe will keep the current lock open during construction of the new one. But the current lock is like a 76-year old terminally ill patient, he said.
“It’s different from other projects in that its terminal illness is not just its age, but concrete growth. We have begun the treatment of this illness but it is prohibitively expensive over the long run and is not a permanent cure,” Murphy said. “Thankfully we have begun the cure (construction of the new lock). Efficient funding is critical to completing the new lock before the old lock dies.”
Murphy added that inefficient funding has resulted in a project that originally began in 2005 for $310 million with an estimated completion in 2014 into one that is now estimated at $755 million with a completion date of 2023.
While touring the construction project, the general taped one of his “On the Road Again” segments and stressed the way forward to finish the work at Chickamauga Lock.
“What’s really important here is this is not just one lock on one river. This is a system of locks that ties into another river and is the entire economic viability of the United States,” Semonite said. “We’ve got to make sure we can get the funding to bring this to closure to be able to continue to let the navigation industry do what they need to do, but also take care of the great residents of this area.”
Olmsted Locks and Dam
Semonite then traveled to Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky, 17 miles upstream of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Louisville District is constructing this project to replace Locks and Dam 52 and 53, which will greatly reduce tow and barge delays through the busiest stretch of the river.
Mike Braden, chief of the Olmsted Division, briefed Semonite on the status of construction on the $3.1 billion project, an engineering marvel as part of the nation’s navigation superhighway, which is expected to be totally completed by 2022.
“We’re ahead of schedule, Braden reported to the general. “We’re done with the twin 1,200-foot locks on the project… and (we’re) about 75 percent complete with the dam using ‘in the wet’ technology and a navigable pass construction technique. And we’re committed right now, sir, to have this operational by October 2018 to reap $640 million in annual benefits.”
This strategic reach of the Ohio River provides a connection between the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. More tonnage passes this point than any other place in America’s inland navigation system. On average, 95 million tons traverses this portion of the Ohio River.
The project consists of two 110-foot by 1,200-foot locks adjacent to the Illinois bank, and a dam composed of five tainter gates, 1,400 feet of boat-operated wickets and a fixed weir. The dam is under construction in the river using a method known as “in-the-wet” in which giant concrete shells are cast on land and then placed in the river.
Col. Christopher Beck, Louisville District commander, explained that the work is progressing and that they are in phase two of three phases of the project.
“The first phase was the lock construction. The second phase is the dam construction. And then that third phase is us transitioning this over to our operations division and making it part of the system as we bring 52 and 53 out of service,” Beck said.
The colonel noted that capability funding over the past several years has allowed the Louisville District to be successful because it has allowed them to manage the risk.
“That capability funding allows us and the contractor to work together to identify projects, programs and requirements that we can finish for that year and not let the project schedule drive our decisions,” Beck said.
Semonite said he is very impressed with the engineering at the project and praised the staff for all they do.
“What I’m most impressed is that people out here that every single day come to work to be able to make this happen,” Semonite stressed. “We’ve got to have a quality project and I saw that out here today.”
The general talked about delivering on time, which is what the engineering castle on every hard hat is all about, he said. “We say we’re Army Strong. We say as the Corps of Engineers we’re Building Strong. But I need you guys to make sure we’re finishing strong.”
Semonite hopped back on the Blackhawk and headed to the Kentucky Lock Addition Project in Grand Rivers, Ky., on the Tennessee River, where the Nashville District is building a new 1,200-foot by 110-foot lock next to the existing 600-foot by 110-foot lock.
The project is number three on the IWTF priority list and carries 57 million tons of commerce annually with a value of over $10 billion.
The total cost for the project is $874 million with about $415 million expended to date, or about 47 percent complete. With efficient future funding levels the earliest expected completion date is 2023.
Project Manager Don Getty briefed the general about the construction and issues with the existing lock where average delays to the towing industry are more than 10 hours.
“Kentucky Lock is a huge bottleneck,” Getty said. “The new Kentucky Lock is going to solve that bottleneck and make this inland waterway a more efficient system, so it’s a great asset for the country when we’re able to increase the efficiency.”
Getty said the lock’s current size requires a double lockage, which results in Kentucky Lock having the highest average delay of any lock on the Ohio River System and significant cost in money and time for the tow boat industry.
“The new lock will reduce delays to almost zero,” Getty said.
Semonite walked up and down hundreds of steps on the construction site, even descending all the way down into the through-sill water intakes, which are giant 150-foot wide by 25-foot high tunnelways that will make it possible to fill the lock with 60 million gallons of water in 17 minutes.
Being able to see the construction first hand and ask questions is invaluable, the general said.
The general added that when he speaks to members of Congress and other stakeholders about these critically important projects, he must have credibility, which he gets by visiting the projects and understanding what they are designed to do. He said he has to understand the big-picture funding plans but also get boots on the ground to meet the experts at the projects so he can personally understand the issues.
“We just went down to the bottom of the lock, 150 feet down in. We’re walking through and I’m asking them, ‘what can we do to continue to help?’ And the biggest single thing here is the direct funding, the ability to make sure there is a predictability in the funding,” Semonite said.
Semonite said it’s not like we can build everything all at once, but at some given point when the Corps of Engineers starts a project it’s important to see it through.
From a regional perspective, David Dale, director of Programs for the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division in Cincinnati, Ohio, said it’s great to have the chief engineer connect with the projects and the staffs, and ultimately make an assessment of how he can make a positive impact as the leader of the Corps of Engineers.
“I try to get out myself… to maintain that connection with what is going on,” Dale said. “The longer you are at the headquarters level or above the further away you get from what I call the work force – where the work is really happening. When you do that you can get disconnected.”
Dale said the general saw three very important projects that will bring value to the nation. At each location he witnessed a lot of logistics, where managers and leaders have to know how to get the right things at the right place at the right time to complete a complex project on or ahead of schedule, which is a tremendous undertaking.
“We’ve got great projects without a doubt,” Semonite said. “We’ve got great potential, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the Corps of Engineers has the best people.”
The general thanked everyone for the warm welcome he received and for helping him understand these great projects so that he can make decisions that are in the best interest of the country in regards to maintaining and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. He also expressed his appreciation for the National Guard aircrew that made sure he made it on time to each project during his visit to the region.
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