Lock repair should not stop traffic

One of the nation’s most important highways — the Ohio River — was bottlenecked in our area for a few days because of a disturbing failure by the federal government.

Last Wednesday, workers at the New Cumberland Locks and Dam noticed a sheen on the water in the lock chamber. Hydraulic fluid from the lock’s machinery had leaked into the water.

The lock had to be shut down for a few days. That was a problem because the only way boats can pass dams is through locking systems that can either raise or lower them.

No problem, right? Just use the backup lock.

Not at New Cumberland. The auxiliary lock there was taken out of service about two years ago, after being deemed structurally unsafe. It was not repaired or replaced.

That meant millions of dollars in river traffic was stuck at New Cumberland.

Dams and locks on inland waterways are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the agency’s defense, it should be noted the Corps has warned for years that some dams on rivers in our region need major repairs or replacement.

Congress, which seems perfectly willing to spend tens of billions of dollars on defense programs the Pentagon says it does not want or need, moves slowly when it comes to the dam network.

Lawmakers should rethink their priorities. They could start by asking the Corps for a report on how many dams are in the same condition as New Cumberland, without a backup should a critical piece of machinery break down. Given the importance of inland waterways to the nation’s commerce, allowing that to happen is simply inexcusable.