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
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
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
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
"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,
"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
"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