Peoria Journal Star

April 13, 2002

Congress lobbied on locks 
Corn growers, barge operators push plan 

By DORI MEINERT 
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Illinois corn growers and barge operators are back lobbying Congress for a controversial $1 billion project to expand locks and dams on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. 

Just a little more than a year ago, a $57 million study of the river project was grounded after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was found to be manipulating data to justify the construction. 

Corps officials have launched a new study they say will balance
environmental needs with commercial shippers' desires. 

But that new feasibility study will not be done until 2004. Industry representatives do not want to wait. 

They are pushing Congress to authorize up to $5 million in design work on the project this year - even before the study concludes whether it is worth additional tax dollars. 

That has environmentalists and taxpayer advocacy groups fuming. 

"It's an insult to taxpayers to spend their hard-earned money to design projects that may never be built," said Scott Faber of Environmental Defense. 

However, Christopher Brescia, president of the Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC) 2000, argues it would save time to include the authorization in this year's Water Resources Development Act. 

The design work is estimated to take two years. Congress, which authorizes water projects every two years, then could authorize construction in its 2004 water bill. The construction itself could take up to 10 years, depending on funding. 

"We have to get this thing started now. We really do believe it's a no-brainer," Brescia told reporters recently. 

Brescia and Garry Niemeyer, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, this week (April 10) formally asked a House transportation subcommittee to include the project in this year's water bill. 

They support lengthening five locks on the Mississippi River and two on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange, which they say will eliminate delays in shipping. 

"If we are unable to move agricultural products in an efficient manner, the United States will become less and less competitive in export markets and we will lose domestic markets as well," said Niemeyer, who also represented the
National Corn Growers Association. 

As evidence of congressional support for the project, he cited language inserted by House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and committee member, Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, in the fiscal year 2003 House budget resolution recognizing "the importance of the inland waterway system and the need to modernize the navigation infrastructure." 

After a National Academy of Sciences study last year criticized the economic analysis conducted by the corps, LaHood said he would not support funding for the project "if the data is not there." 

This week (April 10), he explained the budget resolution language as his effort "to keep the process moving." 

He said he expects an interim report from the corps in July to support the lock expansion project. 

However, Denny Lundberg, the corps' project manager, said the July report to Congress will only be a status report. 

"It will not include any full-scale recommendation . . . because we won't have all the environmental or economic studies done," Lundberg said. 

But he acknowledged that "if Congress, the administration and the corn growers are pushing some particular alternative . . . that's probably what we'll do." 

Corps' projects traditionally have been popular with lawmakers eager to bring some federal money back to their districts. 

However, the corps' credibility has suffered over the past two years. 

The Army inspector general in December 2000 confirmed a whistleblower's allegations that corps officials manipulated economic data to justify the costly project. It also found the agency had a widespread bias in favor of large projects that benefit industry. 

Early last year, the National Academy of Sciences report found the corps had ignored less expensive ways to manage barge traffic on the two rivers, such as better scheduling and purchasing equipment to hook barges together faster. The report found the corps had overestimated future grain exports and the demand for barge services in its cost-benefit analysis. 

In addition to the corps' internal scandal, a looming budget deficit and the cost of waging a war against terrorism are working against approval of any new large and costly projects. 

Meanwhile, the corps has a backlog of $52 billion worth of authorized projects for which there is no funding. 

The Bush administration has proposed cutting the corps budget by 16 percent and was lauded by environmentalists when it fired corps chief Michael Parker for not defending the cuts. 

But some lawmakers were outraged and said the move would only increase their resolve to boost funding. 

While several corps reform measures are pending on Capitol Hill, the corps itself has tried to address the criticisms by restructuring its Mississippi-Illinois River study. 

The study will not only consider the need for navigation improvements, but will give equal consideration to fish and wildlife resources, Lundberg said. 

Mark Beorkrem, navigation policy director for the Mississippi River Alliance, a coalition of 150 environmental and community organizations, has said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the corps' new more conciliatory approach. 

"It's a new era of cooperation and collaboration. We're seeing studies as they are drafted. That's a big change," Beorkrem said. "We're catching disagreements ahead of time and hoping we can resolve some of those."