Work on critical systems at Ballard Locks finally begins

SEATTLE — On Wednesday, contractors at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks began removing wire rope installed nearly a century ago.

It wasn't easy.

As they worked around old equipment, a transformer blew.

That's the way it goes at the Ballard Locks, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to preserve despite paltry funding.

But that financial picture has recently improved, thanks in part to lobbying from the maritime industry, which made a case for investing in the century-old infrastructure.

When KIRO 7 investigated conditions at the locks in 2015, the Corps said the locks could use $40 million in upgrades.

In 2017, as the locks turned 100 years old, a new study from the maritime industry and the Port of Seattle estimated the need as being between $30 million and $60 million.

"The economic value that comes into this region because of this facility is really huge," said Charlie Costanzo, from American Waterways Operators, a trade group for the tug and barge industry.

He's among those who lobbied federal officials for more money, in part by explaining that the traditional standard for prioritizing a facility -- tonnage -- doesn't tell the whole story in Seattle, because many commercial vessels are offloaded before they enter the lock.

"We may not pass freight through here, but we're opening and closing more frequently than any other lock in the country," Costanzo said.

Costanzo provided a chart showing how annual funding, which had hovered around $10 million, jumped closer to $25 million.

The project that began Wednesday is to replace parts of the emergency closure system at the large lock, which could be needed in a lock failure during a catastrophe, such as a big earthquake.

"The main function of that is to control flow if we were to lose our gates so we wouldn't reduce the water level in the lake," said Jon Hofstra, operations project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers.

To stop the water flow, a crane installed in the 1920s would place bulkheads at the head of the lock, and a cable system would pull them underwater.

The cable system replacement now underway will cost less than $1 million.

Replacement of the crane will cost around $5 million and begin later this year.

Next year, a $13 million project will begin on the valves that set levels in the big lock, which will require several long closures to marine traffic.

The Corps also hopes to replace or repair gates on the large lock, which are showing signs of deterioration.

That project would cost an estimated $15 million.