Springfield State Journal Register

July 18, 2006

Senate to take up plan for locks, dams

Illinois, Mississippi rivers covered

WASHINGTON - The Senate is expected to begin debate today on a long-stalled bill that would authorize a costly and controversial lock and dam expansion project on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

The $3.6 billion project, which includes $1.6 billion for ecosystem restoration, has long been sought by the agriculture and barge industries, but environmentalists and taxpayer advocates say it's a government boondoggle.

It's the largest project in a $12 billion water resources reauthorization bill that has been stalled, partly over efforts to include provisions for reforming how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prioritizes and justifies large water projects.

Passage of the overall bill appears to be assured. Eighty-one senators - including Illinois Democrats Dick Durbin and Barack Obama - signed a letter earlier this year to urge that a Senate vote be scheduled. However, the two hadn't determined Monday how they would vote on the reform amendments, their aides said.

A final Senate vote is expected later this week. The House passed its version of the bill last July 406-14. Congress last approved a water resources reauthorization bill in 2000.

The project calls for lengthening five locks on the Mississippi River and two on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange, at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion. Another $235 million is included for small-scale navigation improvements.

Several expert panels have concluded that the lock and dam expansion can't be economically justified in light of declining barge traffic.

However, Durbin has said it will mean more than 50,000 jobs for the region, shorter shipping times and improved business for Midwest producers along the river.

The scheduled Senate vote is "long overdue," said Paul Rohde, president of MARC 2000, a coalition of river users supporting the project. "This is certainly a great first step in seeing needed infrastructure improvements to assure that we still have a third coast working efficiently."

"Authorization certainly doesn't meant that concrete is gong to be poured next week," Rohde said, noting that preconstruction and design work could take three or four years, depending on appropriation levels.

Critics hope the Senate will pass amendments by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that they say would increase oversight of the Corps' planning process and improve prioritization of projects nationwide. There is a $58 billion backlog in projects now, opponents argue.

"It would take 35 years just to clear the backlog if no additional projects were ever authorized," said Chelsea Maxwell, legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation.

Flaws in the current system for determining priorities became apparent after Hurricane Katrina, critics said. Louisiana received more money for water projects than any other state, but little of it went to upgrading New Orleans' system of levees, they said.

"The U.S. (Army) Corps of Engineers has been used as conduit for pork for many, many years," said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, which also supports the reforms.

Opponents of the lock expansion pledge to fight the project even if it is authorized. Funding for the work must be approved in annual appropriations bills.

"We'll continue to fight it on the appropriations level until the Corps can satisfy us it's justified," said Mark Beorkrem, upper basin program director with the Mississippi River Basin Alliance.

 

Dori Meinert can be reached at 202-737-7686 or dori.meinert@copleydc.com.