Washington, DC..A massive and controversial plan to expand the lock and dam system on the Upper Mississippi River and the Illinois Waterway is being delayed for an additional two years because the Army Corps of Engineers now admits that river traffic forecasts are much lower than previously assumed, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group that represents employees within the Corps.
Under the proposed new Corps schedule, final project feasibility studies will not be completed until March of 2002. The previous schedule called for these studies to be completed in draft form this month. The reason for the delay is ascribed to a new Corps internal review which found that actual barge traffic on the rivers since 1993 has been significantly lower than the original Corps forecasts had predicted.
The traffic demand forecasts for the Upper Mississippi-Illinois Waterway Navigation project were central to the disclosures made earlier this year by Corps economist Dr. Donald Sweeney. In an affidavit accompanied by a sheaf of confirming internal Corps e-mails, Dr. Sweeney charged that the project's cost-benefit studies were manipulated by top Corps officials to justify building the project far sooner than needed to accommodate anticipated barge traffic.
"The Corps owes Dr. Sweeney an apology," commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch through whose organization Dr. Sweeney made his original disclosures. "The fact that the Corps is only now looking at actual barge traffic numbers for the past six years suggests that problems with their forecasting run far deeper than the Upper Mississippi."
The Upper Mississippi-Illinois Waterway Navigation project involves extensive enlargement and other improvements in the 29 locks and dams in the 854 mile stretch of the Upper Mississippi between Minneapolis-St. Paul and the mouth of the Ohio River as well as the 8 locks and dams on the 348 mile Illinois Waterway connecting the City of Chicago and the Great Lakes with the Mississippi. The size and complexity of the project would make it one of the largest single civil works projects proposed in recent years.
"The Corps is trying to lowball this announcement in order to minimize embarrassment," Ruch added. "No external critic could make a more compelling case for independent review of Corps studies."