Ballard Locks face millions in upgrades or risk failure

SEATTLE — The region’s economy could be at risk, as well as its environment and even highways if one aging chokepoint is not addressed – the Ballard Locks.

Needed work on the 100-year-old facility could take between $30-60 million and between 6-10 years to complete. But there’s steep competition for federal funding. In the meantime, work on items such as the emergency closure system await updates.

“If the locks were to fail in an open position, Lake Washington could drain by a pretty dramatic amount and quickly,” said Charles Costanzo with the American Waterways Operators, a national trade association for the tug boat and barge industry. “You have critical infrastructure like the 520 Bridge and the I-90 Bridge; you have a floating bridge that could potentially no longer be floating. That would seriously compromise the integrity of highway infrastructure and be pretty paralyzing to the region.”

“If the locks have to close at the opening of a fishing season … it could potentially be a lost season for the fishing industry,” he said.

Costanzo's organization performed a study on the passage, its results arguing the economic significance of the Ballard Locks and the risks of not getting the work done. It is an attempt to get out in front of national budget makers.



“The maintenance needs have been urgent for a long time,” Costanzo said. “The locks are 100 years old and some of the components of the facility are original.”

Ballard Locks need work

The Ballard Locks have undergone a series of maintenance and repair jobs in recent years from crane replacements to work on the spillway gates. But there is a list of further work required to bring it up to date, including the emergency systems on both the large and small locks.

  • Large Lock Emergency Closure System: $4-8 million
  • Filling Culvert Valve and Machinery: $5-12 million
  • Large Lock Gate Rehabilitation: $6-10 million
  • Emergency Generator Connections: up to $1 million
  • Saltwater Drain Intake System and Diffuser Well: $5-10 million
  • Small Lock Emergency Closure: $1-5 million
  • Electrical system: $5-7 million
  • Small Lock Machinery: $3-5 million
  • Saltwater Barrier Replacement: $1-2 million

Money locks

According to the recent study, about $1.2 billion in economic activity travels through the Ballard Locks. That includes 3,000 full-time jobs, $545 million in annual commercial fishing, and $480 million in annual sales at local businesses. With around 40,000 trips each year, it is the most-used locks in the nation.

“The Ballard Locks need whatever is in the president’s budget, plus more to address major maintenance,” Constanzo said.

The locks face competition for infrastructure dollars. It all comes from the Army Corps of Engineers which depends on budget allocations from Congress.

“You’ve got a nationally competitive landscape for limited funds … every part of the country has very urgent infrastructure needs, whether it’s roads, highways, bridges, locks, damns, dredging … one of the reasons we did this study is to elevate the Ballard Locks in terms of the importance,” Constanzo said. “The locks are vital to the region and to the country. When those fishing vessels go out through the locks and come back with fish in the hold … it is being sold in markets around the world.”

Costanzo said that Washington’s lawmakers are aware of the importance. But the message needs to get to the other states. He said it is not about one budget cycle, but keeping the money flowing for up to 10 years to get the millions of dollars worth of work done.