Peoria Journal Star

May 3, 2006

Senators push for vote on water bill

By Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. joined senators from Missouri and Iowa on Tuesday to renew their call for a Senate vote to authorize a controversial $3.6 billion lock and dam expansion on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

They appeared at a press conference with the National Corn Growers Association and a coalition of river users, including the barge industry, whose members have pushed the project for years.

"I think most of us understand that we can't wait any longer," said Durbin, asserting that the proposed project strikes a good balance between protecting the environment and the economic needs of the Midwest.

Environmental and consumer advocates have said that declining barge traffic on the Mississippi River doesn't warrant the expenditure. Several expert panels also have found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn't make a credible case for the project.

"The support from the (Bush) administration has been diminishing. The era of these big projects seems to be closing," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The barge traffic keeps falling every year. Each succeeding year, there's less traffic, so each year the economic case gets weaker."

Barge operators and farm groups argue that the current 600-foot locks are causing costly delays and that the proposed project to lengthen five locks on the Mississippi and two on the Illinois River is needed to compete in the global marketplace. The Illinois River locks are at Peoria and LaGrange.

The project is the largest in a $10 billion water resources authorization bill passed by the House in July 2005. But the Senate has yet to take action.

Earlier this year, Durbin and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., were among 80 senators who signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., requesting a floor vote on the long-delayed bill.

"We are very close to being able to work out a deal," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

The White House has not requested money for the project in recent years, but Congress has continued to approve planning money, including $10 million for the current fiscal year. In its fiscal 2007 budget request, submitted to Congress in February, the Bush administration sought $27 million for maintenance to keep the old locks working.

The $3.6 billion proposal includes $1.8 billion for lengthening the locks and $1.6 billion for ecosystem restoration. Another $235 million would be used for small-scale navigation improvements.

"We don't want to be left out in the worldwide scene because we have poor infrastructure," said Ken McCauley, a vice president with the National Corn Growers Association.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners also supports the project, saying it would bring 3,000 to 6,000 jobs a year to the region.