Washington, DC — The case for the centerpiece of a massive water projects bill pending before Congress is crumbling in the face of a long, steep decline in demand. Barge traffic on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway continues a 17-year downward trend through the first half of 2007, according to the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures compiled and released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A $2 billion plan to expand the lock system on these rivers is a major part of the Water Resources Development Act which President Bush has promised to veto.
Large, cumulative decreases in barge traffic (composed primarily of agricultural products) have occurred at nearly every Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway lock, with the most heavily utilized locks experiencing an average 35 percent traffic reduction since the Corps began studying the need for lock expansion back in the early 1990s. At the same time, American Commercial Lines, one of America’s leading barge lines on the Upper Mississippi River, is forecasting even less grain traffic in coming years.
These dramatic declines in traffic are occurring despite improved performance of the locks resulting from a robust rehabilitation program by the Corps. The existing locks are now performing so well with traffic levels so low that they are idle more than half of the year.
These converging developments undercut the premise for the Corps’ proposed expensive expansion of seven locks on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway. In sharp contrast to the history of shrinking barge shipping, the Corps and its boosters stubbornly cling to wildly optimistic traffic forecasts (called “scenarios”) in attempting to justify this long-delayed mega-project.
Seven years ago, the Corps’ own top economist blew the whistle on the Upper Mississippi lock expansion, saying that the only way it could be justified was by cooking the books. In the intervening years, the Corps forecasts and analyses have been sharply criticized by multiple National Academies of Science panels. This scandal led to louder calls for “Corps reform” but even limited outside review of Corps planning was neutered in the pending legislation now awaiting a final Senate vote before it goes to the President’s desk.
“The only thing about this project that has changed in the past seven years is its price tag, which has nearly doubled,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization represented Dr. Donald Sweeney, the Corps economist who disclosed the attempt to manipulate cost-benefit studies. “The rationale for this boondoggle is like the Yogi Berra quote ‘nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.’”
The pending Water Resources Development Act now contains 940 projects costing approximately $21 billion. The Upper Mississippi Lock project is the second largest, behind the multi-year Everglades “restoration” effort. President Bush has pledged to veto this bill citing budget busting concerns.
“As last week’s Minneapolis bridge collapse underscores, America has huge infrastructure needs which will only languish longer if scarce funds are squandered on unneeded money pits like the Upper Mississippi lock expansion,” Ruch added. “As demonstrated by this pork-laden water bill, the parochial politics of Congress argue for having infrastructure priorities set by an independent commission, just as Congress authorized when it conceded its inability to rationally make decisions about closing surplus military bases.”