Washington, DC — Upper Mississippi River barge traffic registered double-digit declines again in 2004, according to the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures compiled and released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This latest drop continues a 15-year old trend of large, cumulative decreases in barge traffic at nearly every Upper Mississippi lock, with the most heavily utilized locks experiencing an average 40 percent traffic reduction since the Corps began studying the need for lock expansion back in 1992.
Notwithstanding this history of sinking barge shipping, the Corps is stubbornly clinging to wildly optimistic traffic forecasts (called scenarios) in attempting to justify a multi-billion dollar expansion of river locks on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway. Corps spokesman Ron Fournier insists, "We will stand by the fact that we've worked with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and farming industries, and we firmly believe there will be increases in tonnage. We will have our off-years."
"The Corps is sounding like Chicago Cubs fans whose only comfort is repeating, ‘Wait until next year,'" stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Corps forecasts were also harshly criticized by multiple National Academies of Science panels commissioned to review the Corps economic study. "These latest traffic declines should drive the stake in the heart of this boondoggle."
In its lame duck session, Congress again rejected a move led by Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) to authorize this expensive navigation expansion project, now estimated to cost at least $2.4 billion and tied to billions more in so-called "environmental restoration" projects. Since that defeat—
- The President's Office of Management and Budget has sat on the Corps' draft recommendation for moving ahead with the lock expansion project. President Bush has also again singled out the Corps for major funding cuts in his proposed new budget;
- The barge industry has been plagued with more bankruptcies and consolidations caused by shrinking demand. Meanwhile the chief industry lobbyist for the project has recently departed; and
- The Senate denied confirmation to the Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works, J.P. Woodley, the top civilian overseeing the Corps, following his recess appointment. Woodley has been placed in an acting position that he must vacate by July unless he is confirmed promptly in the new Congressional session.
"Five years ago, the Corps' own economist blew the whistle on this project, saying that the only way it could be justified is by cooking the books and with each passing month it becomes clearer just how right he was," added Ruch whose organization represented Dr. Donald Sweeney in making that disclosure. "The Upper Mississippi lock project is the main reason for the five-year stalemate in Congress blocking any new authorization for Corps projects; that logjam will not break until this project is relegated to the dustbin."