Washington, DC — Barge traffic on the Upper Mississippi River dipped again in 2005, continuing a 16-year downward trend, according to the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures compiled and released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Large, cumulative decreases in barge traffic occurred at nearly every Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway lock, with the most heavily utilized locks experiencing an average 45 percent traffic reduction since the Corps began studying the need for lock expansion back in the early 1990’s.
At the same time, the management of one of America’s leading barge lines using the Upper Mississippi River locks is forecasting even deeper declines in its latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:
“We believe that existing capacity will continue to be retired from the barging sector. According to Informa, from 1998 to 2004, the industry fleet size was reduced by 2,036 barges, or an 8.8% reduction, to its 2004 year end level of 21,056. This level represents the lowest number of barges in operation within our industry since 1992.”
These converging developments further undercut the case for the Corps’ proposed multi-billion dollar expansion of the river locks on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway. In sharp contrast to this history of shrinking barge shipping, the Corps stubbornly clings to wildly optimistic traffic forecasts (called scenarios) in attempting to justify the long-delayed project. As Corps spokesman Ron Fournier recently insisted:
“We will stand by the fact that we’ve worked with the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and farming industries, and we firmly believe there will be increases in tonnage. We will have our off-years.”
Six years ago, the Corps’ own economist blew the whistle on this project, saying that the only way it could be justified was by cooking the books. In the intervening years, the Corps forecasts have been sharply criticized by multiple National Academies of Science panels commissioned to review the Corps economic study.
“The credibility of the Corps is sinking faster than the barge traffic,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization represented Dr. Donald Sweeney, the Corps economist who disclosed the attempt to manipulate cost-benefit studies for the Upper Mississippi project. “With each passing month, it becomes clearer just how right Dr. Sweeney was, as the disconnect between reality and the rosy Corps forecasts yawns wider and wider.”
Following Hurricane Katrina, Congress again shelved legislation, spearheaded by Senator Kit Bond (R-MO), to authorize the entire Upper Mississippi navigation expansion project, now estimated to cost at least $2.4 billion and tied to billions more in so-called regional “environmental restoration” projects. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has yet to take a definitive stand on the project; the President’s Office of Management and Budget continues to sit on the Corps’ recommendation for moving ahead with lock expansion.
The continuing controversy concerning the Upper Mississippi lock project is the main reason for a six-year stalemate during which Congress has blocked any new authorization for Corps projects.