Proposed Zoning Changes Could Harm Navigable Rivers

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

(March 2, 2016)–In December 2015 the Mayor’s office issued a press
release promoting a change to the zoning laws regarding riverfront
development within City borders. The claim made in the release is
that the old zoning designations of "urban industrial" or "general
industrial" are no longer useful and need to be changed to reflect
the more commercial, residential, and mixed use development goals of
the City.

While it’s very clear that the City’s once world class industrial
might is in the past, the administration needs to be mindful of the
reason the rivers are the attraction and resource they are. They
exist as they do because they were developed to provide navigable
waterways to transport the materials and products that supported the
growth of an extractive and industrial economy that was the source of
Pittsburgh’s economic prowess for decades. Absent the navigation
infrastructure that maintains the minimum depth pools we see today,
Pittsburgh’s rivers would revert to their natural state and that
would mean frequent very low, unusable and far less attractive water
levels. We expound on this point below.

The City’s Planning Commission recently recommended an amendment to
the planning code called the "Riverfront Zone Overlay District"
(section 907.02.J) which would tighten the zoning laws. City Council
has not yet approved the amendment. Overlay districts, as defined by
the Department of Community and Economic Development’s Center for
Local Government Services, "…are placed over the original districts
and apply additional provisions that are either more restrictive or
expansive, or that may provide for different uses or design standards
than the original district regulations." The overlay district would
be in place for 18-24 months while new, more permanent, regulations
are put in place.

There are recommendations that create concern found in the section of
the amendments called the "Need for Interim Zoning" (907.02.J.2).
The purpose of the new rules, among others, is to "design
requirements for development consistent with the evolving character
of the neighborhoods" and to give "neighborhood stakeholders input on
projects which have a high impact on the public realm." That would
appear to have far reaching and potentially powerful impacts on the
types of uses and construction that would be permitted over a very
wide area. Furthermore, another reason for the change in zoning,
under the "Intent" section (907.02.J.3) is the desire for more "green
space" and to provide enough of a riverfront setback to, among other
things, create space for a linear, continuous riverfront trail.
With many of the industries relying on riverfront access to the
water, will they be pushed back to make room for trails? This can
also limit the type of industry looking to move into the City as they
will be barred from river access.

The consequences could result in chasing out or severely restricting
expansion opportunities for the industrial or commercial firms
currently using the rivers.

And what if these stakeholders succeed in chasing out industrial
firms? As mentioned above the development of navigation
infrastructure helped support industry through the 20th century by
keeping river water levels stable and deep enough to carry barge
traffic. Most of the population is either unaware, or only vaguely
aware, that the rivers were dammed to create navigable waterways that
enabled industry to thrive in Pittsburgh and up and down the three
rivers. These locks and dams are owned and controlled by the US Army
Corps of Engineers (USACE). Because of the lock and dam system the
USACE, in its Upper Ohio Navigation Study: Pennsylvania (2014),
estimates that Allegheny County has led the state in the number of
boat registrations for a number of years. They also estimate that
the number of non-registered boats (kayaks) went from 1,400 in 2004
to over 9,000 in just a few years.

The lock and dam at Emsworth is an important element in keeping the
rivers in Pittsburgh at full pool level. This lock and dam were
built in 1921 and were rehabbed in 1984. Thus it has been over 30
years since the rehab, and nearly 100 years since they were
constructed. The USACE estimated that in 2008, 21.27 tons of cargo
passed through the Emsworth lock, down from 24.08 tons in 1970. The
report further explains that the area has shifted from being
dependent upon coal and steel to one that is dominated by health and
education. These sectors of course are not dependent upon the

In a very ominous sentence the USACE report says, "The question then
becomes whether the continued maintenance of the navigation system is
warranted given the potentially large investment that will be needed
to modernize the aged projects." The USACE report also notes that
the movement to minimize the use of coal fired plants for electricity
generation could lead to even less coal being moved by barge and that
the "…effects on barge transportation of coal could be negative and
greatly diminish the utility of the waterborne transportation

According to the Port of Pittsburgh Commission (PPC), Pittsburgh is
the third busiest inland port in the nation and twentieth busiest
overall in the country. In 2013 it handled over 33 million tons of
cargo. Each lock on the Monongahela and Ohio handles approximately
9,000 barges per year. And of course barge cargo hauling is much
cheaper than other modes, costing between $0.005 and $0.01 per ton
mile (PTM) which is much cheaper than rail ($0.05 PTM) or truck
($0.10 PTM). According to a PPC survey, receivers of sand and
gravel, key components in cement and asphalt, stated that "trucking
costs for local product are double the barge cost and the trucking
cost for product delivered from outside the PPC District are triple
the barge cost." And that does not include the damage to area
roadways if truck becomes the only method of transporting this

Without the incentives to maintain the lock and dam system in the
region, the navigation infrastructure will be in jeopardy. After
all, the justification for the USACE to build and maintain the
infrastructure was predicated on economic benefits derived through
the shipper cost savings derived from transporting cargo on the
waterways. Unless the USACE adopts new criteria for justifying
expenditures for lock and dam maintenance and construction, the
decline in water cargo traffic will eventually lead to lock and dam
failures as spending for maintenance and upgrades falls.

Suspension of support has already happened on the upper Allegheny
River where the last four locks on the river (Clinton, Kittanning,
Mosgrove, and Rimer) have been closed except for special events to
recreational boaters. A local non-profit raises money to keep locks
operating on the weekends during the summer. Will the stakeholders
along Pittsburgh’s riverfronts be willing to pay to keep locks and
dams in good repair should industrial users and barge traffic be
driven off the rivers? Would they be willing to pay more to repair
roads that were damaged by the increase to truck traffic delivering
goods such as sand and gravel for construction or even salt for
keeping roads clear of snow? Recreational use of the rivers could
become extremely problematic in many dry summer seasons.

As mentioned above, Pittsburgh’s huge industrial prowess might be in
its past, but industry still plays a very important role for the City
and region. By utilizing the river, barge traffic provides the
justification for keeping the deep, stable pools to which we have
become accustomed for both recreation and other benefits such as
stable water supply intake. Take the pools away and water intakes for
municipal and industrial users would have to be rebuilt or other
sources would have to be found.

While the new zoning overlay district proposal claims it will not
affect existing businesses, the groundwork could be laid to push some
"undesirables" out of the City by denying expansion or rehab
opportunities. The unintended consequence of such a zoning change
could lead to damage of the stable pools on the rivers that make them
attractive which drew many of these new stakeholders to the City’s
waterfronts in the first place.

What is needed is close consultation with industrial users and
prospective water transport users in the City and region to help
promote the cargo shipping use of the rivers so as to maintain the
economic benefits that the USACE–and Congress–must determine exist
to justify large expenditures on the infrastructure. Otherwise the
river communities will be forced to go to Congress to ask for money
to maintain or rebuild the infrastructure on the grounds they want to
use their boats or that their waterfront views will not be attractive
without the dam created pools. That might well prove to be a very
hard sell.

This should serve as a cautionary note for City zoning planners to be
very careful about the tone they take in remaking the riversides.
Indeed, the City ought to be working with other parts of the region
and the industrial users of the waterways to make sure they are
utilized even more than now. Driving coal barges off the rivers might
seem like a great thing for the clean air proponents, but if the
navigation infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate as result of low
barge traffic, the long run implications for Pittsburgh and the other
river communities could be enormous.

Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Associate

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