Peoria Journal Star

February 10, 2004

Bush budget leaves out river projects
LaHood: National deficit may make it hard to fund lock and dam expansion

By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - President Bush's budget plan for next year doesn't include money for the Illinois and Mississippi rivers lock and dam expansion project - a high priority of Illinois farmers and barge operators.

Environmentalists say it's a signal the White House opposes the expansion.

But the project's supporters, including U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said the pause in funding was expected as the Army Corps of Engineers finishes a 12-year feasibility study and awaits congressional approval for the next step.

Regardless, the size of the nation's deficit and President Bush's goal of reducing it by cutting spending will make it more difficult to secure funding for the $2.3 billion project, LaHood and others said.

"It's going to be up to Congress to find the money for it," LaHood said Monday.

In 2001 and again last December, a panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences criticized the corps for using a faulty economic model in determining whether the $2.3 billion lock and dam expansion is justified. The federal government has spent $70 million just studying the issue.

The latest draft recommendation sets the price tag at $2.3 billion for new, longer locks on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange and at five spots on the Mississippi. It also recommends the federal government spend $5.3 billion for environmental restoration.

The administration's failure to request funding for the project in fiscal 2005 - something several environmental groups described as unusual - was first noted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the same group that represented a Corps whistleblower who disclosed previous corps' attempts to manipulate economic data to justify the project.

"Not with a bang but with a whimper, this budget should pull the plug on this seemingly never-ending campaign by

the corps to build this multibillion dollar white elephant," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

However, corps spokesman Ron Fournier said that no funding is needed until after Congress makes a decision on whether the project should be authorized and funded. The preliminary feasibility study will be done in May, and the corps' final recommendation will be sent to Congress in November.

"They blow it out of proportion and make it seem like an administration attack on this process," Fornier said. "It would be different if we asked for money in 2005 and they didn't fund it."

Paul Rohde, representing the river users' group Midwest Area River Coalition 2000, said he wasn't concerned. "The study is ending. You don't need funding for something that won't exist," Rohde said.

The Bush administration has recommended a 9 percent cut in spending for the corps' projects, saying it wants to reduce the backlog in construction by halting new projects. The Rock Island district would receive 15 percent less money under the Bush plan. But Congress typically adds money to the administration's request.

"Everything is going to have to be justified," LaHood said. "In a tight budget situation like we have now ... we've got to make the case. I think we can make the case."

LaHood said he doesn't have to wait for the final corps' report to make up his mind.

"I'm smart enough that when I see concrete falling into the river ... that it needs to be done. That's why I'm committed to it," said LaHood, who also noted that Illinois farmers are being hurt because other countries subsidize their farmers' transportation costs.

But Scott Faber of Environmental Defense said the project is unnecessary.

"The administration has made the use of credible economics and credible science a high priority. So it's not surprising that they would be skeptical about the benefits of a lock expansion project in light of the fact that river traffic has not increased in more than two decades," Faber said.