May 21, 2004
Senators push forward lock expansion plan
By DORI MEINERT
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. - A bipartisan group of senators including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Thursday pushed forward with a controversial $2.8 billion plan to lengthen seven locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
The senators introduced a bill that would authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the $1.46 billion construction of the new, longer locks, including two on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange. The bill also calls for another $1.46 billion to be used for restoring the rivers' ecosystems.
The measure drew praise from the National Corn Growers Association and other river users, who have long argued that it is needed to speed congested barge traffic.
However, environmentalists and taxpayer advocates blasted it as an election-year boondoggle that isn't economically justified.
Durbin said the bill is an attempt to resolve the long-running debate so that both sides win.
"This is an extraordinary opportunity to improve the locks and dams and to make an historic commitment to the ecosystem of the rivers," Durbin said.
In addition to Durbin, the bill was sponsored by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, and Sens. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
The lock expansion plan has been studied for 12 years at a cost $70 million. The project became mired in scandal when a whistleblower alleged in 2000 that the corps had manipulated economic data to justify construction. Two National Academy of Sciences panels have criticized the corps for using a faulty economic model to forecast increases in grain demand and barge traffic.
"The idea they have to build on the potential that traffic may appear in the distant future is bad public policy," said Mark Beorkrem, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and co-chairman of the National Corps Reform Network.
Environmentalists and taxpayer advocates have highlighted the project as a prime example of the corps' bias toward development in their effort to push Congress to pass legislation that would place more restrictions on the corps.
"They have a right to be skeptical because it is virtually impossible to project forward 50 years and to say 40 years from now this is the positive impact," Durbin said. "But I ask them to at least be sensitive to the alternative. If we don't improve river traffic, it will mean more trucks and more rail traffic unless we are willing to accept a dramatic decline in the economy in the Midwest, which I'm not prepared to accept."
Even if the authorization bill were to pass, skeptics note that Congress historically has appropriated far less for environmental restoration on the river than was authorized.
The bill could be included in a larger bill authorizing water projects for the nation. But that bill may be stalled over the fight for corps reform.
The bill would authorize a plan that the corps released earlier this month. Public hearings will be held in June including one June 14 in Peoria and June 15 in Quincy. But corps officials have said they are unlikely to hear anything at the public hearings that would change the plan, which is scheduled to be sent in its final form to Congress this fall.