Bill Theiss knows people who operate pleasure craft on the Ohio River between Huntington and Point Pleasant, West Virginia, can be frustrated with wait times at the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam, but there's not much he can do about it.

The main lock at Robert C. Byrd, about 30 miles upriver from downtown Huntington, has been closed for dewatering and maintenance since late August. It's scheduled to reopen at the end of September.

While the main lock is down, barge traffic must use the smaller of the two locks there. That requires most pilots to break their barge tows into two parts and lock them separately. What is normally a 20- to 30-minute procedure can stretch into two hours or more as the auxiliary lock cycles through an additional set of emptying and filling.

So, recreational craft and commercial traffic must share one lock, and at times the waits can be longer than desired, Theiss said.

"They don't understand why they can't go right on through," said Theiss, the lockmaster at Byrd. "We work them through quickly, but our quickly and their quickly are two different things."

The outage at Robert C. Byrd is one of two happening simultaneously in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Huntington District. The other is at the Willow Island Locks and Dam a few miles above Marietta, Ohio. The main lock there has been out of service since early July, and like Byrd, it is scheduled to reopen at the end of this month.

The Willow Island outage is to allow for the regular 20-year maintenance cycle at the locks. At Byrd, the outage is to fix cracks in the gates that open and close to allow traffic in and out of the locks. There are two gates at each end of the lock. Each gate is about 60 feet tall, nearly the same width and weighs about 280 tons. They are being repaired in place.

Tied off near the lock is the Henry M. Shreve, the largest crane owned by the Corps and one of the largest on the inland rivers.

When the new locks at Byrd, formerly known as the Gallipolis Locks and Dam, were built about 30 years ago, they had a visitor center with a shrine to the namesake senator and a platform that provided a view of activity there.

The main lock - the one that's dewatered - is 1,200 feet long and 110 feet wide. Its walls are 66 feet tall, if not more, but in low-flow river conditions such as we've had lately, the lock has had only about 40 feet of water in it when it was open to the upper pool behind the dam.

That's about 5.28 million cubic feet of water, or 39.5 million gallons, that had to be drained and pumped out. Seeing an empty lock that large is an interesting sight, as is watching workers who might be 6 feet tall working in the empty chamber and at the bottom of the gates.

But Homeland Security measures taken after 9/11 required the locks at Byrd and elsewhere to be fenced off from the public. That's too bad, as people who like to see river traffic up close are missing an opportunity to see this infrastructure in action. The more the public is kept away from infrastructure, the less interested it will be in improving it.

As one person said, the security fence keeps honest people out.

But this is the world we live in. Maybe someday we will again live in a nation where people can again enjoy the infrastructure they helped pay for.

Jim Ross is the Opinion page editor for The Herald-Dispatch.


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