Springfield State Journal Register

December 12, 2003

Panel criticizes U.S. Army Corps of Engineers again over lock and dam project


WASHINGTON - For the second time in two years, an independent panel of experts Thursday criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for using a faulty economic model in determining whether a $2.1 billion lock and dam expansion on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers is justified.

The National Academy of Sciences panel also recommended that the corps first impose new barge tolls and shipping schedules in an attempt to ease barge congestion before launching an expensive construction project.

"The greatest benefit to the nation would be achieved by first implementing cost-effective, nonstructural alternatives and subsequently evaluating the benefits and costs of lock extensions once new traffic patterns are established," the panel concluded in the first of three planned reports.

The lock-expansion project is a top priority of farmers and barge operators, but controversy erupted three years ago when a former corps economist disclosed that his bosses told him to change his economic calculations to justify the project.

Thursday's interim report by the academy's National Research Council repeats many of the criticisms made by a similar expert panel in 2001.

Since then, corps officials said they would revise the feasibility study to balance environmental and navigation needs. The draft feasibility study, which will determine whether the benefits justify the cost, is scheduled for release in April. A final report will go to Congress next fall.

The study is expected to cost $68 million. The most extensive construction proposal calls for lengthening five locks on the Mississippi River and two on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange. That would eliminate delays in shipping, according to river users.

However, the panel concluded that the corps is overly optimistic in predicting increases in future grain exports and barge traffic.

Although grain exports have remained essentially stable for the past 25 years, four of the five scenarios used by the corps in its feasibility study assume substantial increases in exports in future years. The fifth assumes little to no change over current levels, the panel found.

"We're just a little concerned about the optimistic tone of the results," said John Boland, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland who chaired the review committee, which is overseen by the National Research Council, the main operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, the Army's chief of engineers, pledged to use the panel's input "to improve the quality and the content of our study."

The report was praised by environmentalists, but criticized by a coalition of industry, agriculture and organized-labor groups who support the lock and dam construction.

"It seems preposterous that the corps could continue to exaggerate the benefits of this project in light of another stinging rebuke from the National Academy of Sciences," said Scott Faber of Environmental Defense.

"Here is the second time that a panel of experts has told the corps to get the math right."

National Corn Growers Association officials said they were disappointed with the interim report.

"Corn growers are tired of hearing that the corps models are flawed and grain export forecasts are questionable," said association president Dee Vaughn. "These arguments have been thoroughly discussed, discredited and dismissed. That the NRC repeats them, especially when the panel has received
highly credible information challenging them, makes me question the panel's independence and purpose."

The panel suggested the corps delay its study to obtain more credible information. But the corps is under pressure from Congress and industry to proceed.