State Journal-Register

March 1, 2001

Page: 1

Corps of Engineers urged to consider alternatives to lock project

By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Army Corps of Engineers should consider cheaper ways to manage barge traffic on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers before moving ahead with a $1 billion lock-expansion plan, concludes a National Academy of Sciences report released Wednesday.

The long-awaited study found the corps had ignored less-expensive options, such as better scheduling of barge traffic and buying equipment that hooks barges together faster.

The corps already has spent $57 million to study the lock expansion proposal over the last decade.

The academy's report was yet another blow to the shipping industry and farmers, who argue they need the project to stay competitive in the global marketplace. However, the report was praised by environmental and consumer groups, who have opposed the project as an environmentally damaging boondoggle.

The study criticized the economic analysis the corps used to justify the lock expansion. The corps overestimated future grain exports and the demand for barge services, it concluded.

"The corps' economic analysis was fundamentally flawed," said Lester Lave, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University who chaired the NAS panel.

In addition, the study faulted the corps for not considering the cost of the environmental impact of the lock expansion on tourist and recreational economies that depend on a healthy river.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration Wednesday called for a 14 percent reduction in corps funding and pledged to reduce funding for studying potential new projects.

The NAS report is certain to heighten scrutiny of a proposal that calls for the expansion of up to five locks on the Upper Mississippi River and two on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange.

"I'm not going to front for the money if the data is not there, even though I believe, after visiting some of these locks and dams, that there are problems," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., who has supported the lock plan in the past, believes some corps reforms may be necessary, an aide said. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has previously said Congress should halt funding for the project until lawmakers investigate the problems.

The NAS review was requested by the secretary of the Army last year after a whistle-blower charged that corps officials manipulated economic data to justify the lock expansion project.

The Army inspector general's office in December confirmed the whistle-blower's allegations and concluded the corps had a widespread bias in favor of large developments that benefit industry.

In response to that report, then-Army Secretary Louis Caldera directed the corps' new commander, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, to recommend within 60 days whether changes should be made to the way that the corps evaluates projects.

But at a Senate hearing Tuesday, Flowers said he would postpone any agencywide reform until June, giving the Bush administration time to name a new Army secretary.

His reluctance to spell out changes in light of the Army inspector general's findings irritated Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on energy and water. He warned that the corps' credibility was at stake, jeopardizing projects nationwide.

Flowers said he would incorporate the NAS recommendations into the corps' draft feasibility study on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers project due out in September. A final recommendation on the project is scheduled for July 2002.

Also, he said he plans to restructure management of the project and to re-energize an environmental advisory board, which has fallen into disuse in recent years.

However, Flowers vigorously defended the agency's personnel and project review process and emphasized no final decision on the lock expansion plan had been made.