Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: What the ‘M79’ designation would really mean

by Wallace Venable

When we talk and think about rivers, many of us tend to mix romance with reality. That is certainly true of the editorial “A highway river and a whitewater rollercoaster” in the July 13, 2023, edition of The Dominion Post.

I, too, welcome efforts to designate the Monongahela Navigation as Marine Highway M79. I hope our authorities in Monongalia County and Pittsburgh are correct and that it will come in August. It will help to increase recognition of our river both nationally and internationally. It will make us eligible for additional funding, but

Adding a new designation to our river will not make it any different from “The Monongahela River,” “The Monongahela Navigation” or, simply, “Our Mon.” It will not change the waterway in any way. We will still move coal, stone and petroleum in significant amounts as we have for a century and a half, even if we fail to get the designation.

For 2023, the appropriation for Marine Highway grants was only about $10 million for the entire U.S. The Marine Highway system currently includes 29 Marine Highway Routes. Adding in consideration of route lengths, we may expect that when M79 is created, “our fair share” for West Virginia will be only in the thousands of dollars. We are not likely to receive significant project funding until Congress appropriates a few billion for marine highways each year.

The 2023 grant opportunities announcement runs 71 pages. It does not include the word “recreation.” It says, “The application must document why the Project is needed to attract the specific commodities, markets, and shippers necessary to develop, expand, or promote the Marine Highway Transportation Service.” In other words, it is not intended for general river or riverfront development.

Locally, we can expect significant benefits from the marine highway programs when most of our gasoline, fuel oil and chemicals, as well as containers, arrive in Morgantown by barge. That is what will help limit traffic on I-79.

The water taxi to Pittsburgh is a nice dream, but it isn’t ever going to happen. Downtown Morgantown is at Mon River Mile 99. Pittsburgh is Mile 0. With a 20-mile-per-hour boat, it would take five hours each way, assuming you went over the dams rather than through the locks. With a museum visit included, you are talking about a trip of about 15 hours, a very long day. By the way, the “water taxi” isn’t classified as recreation — it’s counted as commercial passenger traffic, almost like a ferry or steamboat under federal rules.

For an uninspected vessel carrying up to six passengers, a Coast Guard licensed captain is required and the boat would probably burn about 200 gallons of fuel, so the operating cost would be about $1,000 per trip. The noise from a faster boat would generate enemies all along the river, and a bigger boat would have higher costs for additional crew and fuel.

A 90-passenger riverboat based in Morgantown and also running regular trips out of Fairmont with occasional overnight trips to events in Pittsburgh is far more practical. Startup costs might be less than half a million dollars — not a huge cost by today’s standards.

Wallace Venable is the technical coordinator for the Upper Monongahela River Association. He lives in Morgantown.