Peoria Journal Star

April 21, 2004

River project will move forward
Army Corps of Engineers plans to ask Congress for funding

By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to move forward with a controversial $2.3 billion lock expansion plan for the Mississippi and Illinois rivers despite opposition from environmental groups and taxpayer advocates.

"We believe we have good, solid ground for recommending $2.3 billion in navigation improvements and $5.3 billion in environmental restoration out there on the rivers," corps spokesman Ron Fournier said Tuesday.

When the corps sends its final recommendation to Congress in November, its commander, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, will ask Congress for money to conduct preliminary engineering and design work for the project, Fournier said.

The tentative plan unveiled in February calls for new, longer locks on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange and at five locations on the Mississippi. The plan will be formally presented to the public in early May, and public meetings will be scheduled for June.

The corps has been studying a lock expansion plan for the past 12 years, spending $70 million.

However, the project was mired in scandal after a whistle-blower in 2000 alleged the corps had manipulated economic data to justify the expensive project. Since then, two National Academy of Sciences panels - including one last December - criticized the corps for using a faulty economic model to forecast increases in grain demand and

barge traffic.

While the lock expansion is a top priority for the National Corn Growers Association, environmentalists and taxpayer groups say it is unnecessary and too expensive.

"We've shown the corps the (river) traffic levels don't justify the expansion and yet the corps persists in duplicating its errors of the last scandalous navigation study," said Mark Beorkrem, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

The corps plans to hold meetings this summer to collect public comment.

However, Fournier said the corps is unlikely to hear anything that would change the plan. Instead, any public concern would be noted in the final report to Congress.

Beorkrem criticized the corps for seeking design money when it hasn't finished the feasibility study to justify the project.

"Why invest tens of millions of dollars for engineering work in projects that may never get built?" Beorkrem asked.

Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, the corps commander, has said in published comments that there is a "sense of urgency" about the project.

"The fear we have is that we'll have some catastrophic breakdown in the system, which will have a major economic impact," Flowers was quoted as saying.

Scott Faber of Environmental Defense said that rationale has never been used by the corps before and hasn't been evaluated as part of the feasibility study.

"I can't imagine there isn't better use of this money in this time of war and deficits than spending $2.3 billion on locks we don't need," Faber said.

Meanwhile, commercial river users, represented by Midwest Area River Coalition, praised the corps for taking the project a step forward.

"It's been a long time coming, but after 12 years and $70 million it's a good thing to move into the next phase," said coalition president Christopher Brescia, who said river users have been losing about 10 percent of their shipping capacity each year for the last 10 years.

The project has strong support in Congress, Brescia said.

Congress would have to approve funding for the engineering and design work, which could take three to six years. It also would have to authorize as well as approve funding for the project's construction, which is expected to take 15 years.