Washington, DC — Scheduling slow-moving barges on the Upper Mississippi River has the potential to reduce congestion at locks, enhance homeland security and protect sensitive wildlife habitat, according to a university study funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Significantly, researchers also found that barge traffic levels are presently too low to justify even the minimal investment required to implement a scheduling system – a finding that undercuts the central argument behind the Corps drive to convince Congress to spend billions of dollars to build bigger locks on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The study, entitled “Management Systems for Inland Waterway Traffic Control,” was conducted by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Funded in large part by the Corps, other study sponsors included the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Geological Survey. The study determined that while scheduling barges was feasible and potentially beneficial, the Upper Mississippi River lacks enough barge traffic to justify the implementation of a traffic management system. In fact, current barge traffic levels are so low that the locks just sit idle a majority of the time while tows spend less than one percent of their time waiting for lock processing.
When it returns from its August recess, the U.S. Senate is slated to take up a proposal to authorize spending up to $2.4 billion to build bigger new locks on the Illinois Waterway and the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. The House of Representatives has already approved the plan. Bigger locks are supposed to speed transport by cutting congestion of barges at the current, smaller locks.
“If traffic levels do not justify the modest step of scheduling traffic at the locks, why in the world would the Corps recommend and the Congress consider spending billions to build bigger locks to accommodate non-existent barges?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The Upper Mississippi plan is like saying that the way to manage automobile traffic is to build bigger and wider roads before investing in a single traffic light.”
One of the researchers involved in the study is Dr. Don Sweeney, a former Corps economist and now a professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. In 2000, Dr. Sweeney blew the whistle on manipulation of the cost-benefit analyses by Corps officers in a failed attempt to justify the project. Dr. Sweeney’s concerns were confirmed by a Department of the Army investigation and later validated by three National Academies of Science reviews. Dr. Sweeney had advocated that the Corps explore non-construction and small-scale alternatives before committing to a high-dollar lock expansion project.
“Even though the Corps helped pay for it, the agency certainly does not want to publicize yet another study showing that its management of the nation’s waterways is primitive, inefficient and self-serving,” Ruch added.