November 24, 2004
Congress approves $13 million to design lock expansion
BY Dori Meinert
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- Congress has approved $13.9 million for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin engineering and design work on a controversial lock and dam expansion proposal for the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
Environmentalists and taxpayer advocates say the funding is premature because Congress hasn't authorized the overall $2.4 billion project, which has been the subject of several negative critiques by experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences.
Negotiations over a separate bill to authorize this and other major water projects nationwide ran out of time this year, forcing the project's supporters to start over next year. Actual construction can't proceed until the project is authorized, corps officials said.
"Under the circumstances, it would probably be mostly a waste of money," said David Conrad, water resources specialist with the National Wildlife Federation of the $13.9 million. "It's quite a leap of faith to assume this project will actually be authorized given its current failings."
But supporters of the project, primarily farmers and barge operators, argue that beginning the pre-construction work would avoid unnecessary delays and that congressional authorization is all but certain.
"It's setting us in a position to act. We've always said new locks is a matter of when, not if, just because of the condition that they're in. And, anything that we can do to position ourselves for the inevitable is a positive thing," said Paul Rohde representing the river users' group, Midwest Area River Coalition 2000.
The corps proposes doubling the size of the locks on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange and at five sites on the Mississippi River.
Advocates say the current 600-foot locks are in disrepair and too short for today's barges, which must be decoupled to go through. But opponents say the project isn't economically justified. A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences found that the corps has used a faulty economic model to justify the project and has ignored smaller, less expensive solutions.
The Bush administration didn't request any funding for the project in its fiscal 2005 budget request sent to Congress last February. Congress included the $13.9 million in a catchall spending bill passed last weekend that rolled nine unfinished funding bills into one for fiscal 2005, which began Oct. 1.
The corps has the authority to use the money for engineering and design work, but "nothing will, or can, be constructed until project construction is authorized," said corps' spokesman Ron Fournier.
Several lawmakers including Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., tried unsuccessfully to attach the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize the water projects, to the massive spending bill that Congress approved in a speedy lame-duck session.
But Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., opposed that effort.
"The regular legislative process should not be circumvented to authorize billions of dollars of new water projects without full consideration of their costs and benefits to federal taxpayers," they wrote in a Nov. 18 letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
They also insisted that reform of the corps' process for justifying projects must be included in any authorization bill.
But a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., another supporter of the lock and dam expansion plan, said the snag in authorization is only temporary.
"We believe this is going somewhere and the reauthorization bill was not derailed because of this project," said Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker. "This may be a project with significant costs associated with it, but it also has significant benefits that flow from it too."
The corps' feasibility study will be sent by mid-December to the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, who will submit it formally to Congress for authorization.