Washington, DC — Congress is moving to spend billions of dollars to build bigger locks on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway despite a shrinking barge industry and insider predictions of a continuing contraction, according to corporate and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The bigger locks are supposed to speed transport by cutting lock congestion however barge traffic levels have been declining for more than a decade, barge companies are pulling underutilized barges off the river and congestion on the river is at modern historic lows.
Even as Congress advances a $2.4 billion to replace every lock on the Illinois Waterway and the Mississippi north of St. Louis, the country’s largest barge company, American Commercial Barge Lines, is retrenching. ACBL stated in its most recent quarterly filing with the Security and Exchange Commission that –
“During 2002 and through the beginning of 2003, we experienced a decline in barging rates, reduced shipping volumes and excess barging capacity…We believe that capacity is continuing to be removed from the barging sector. According to Informa Economics, Inc. a private grain forecast service, from 1998 to 2004, the industry fleet size was reduced by 2,036 barges, or an 8.8% reduction…This level represents the lowest number of barges in operation within our industry since 1992. We believe capacity will continue to be taken out of the industry as older barges reach the end of their useful lives.”
This Upper Mississippi lock expansion proposal has a particularly checkered history. In 2000, Dr. Don Sweeney, then a Corps economist now a professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, blew the whistle on manipulation of cost-benefit analyses in a failed Corps management attempt to “justify” the project. Dr. Sweeney’s disclosures were confirmed by a Department of the Army investigation and later validated by three National Academies of Science reviews. The continuing controversy over the massive construction project is one of the major reasons that Congress has not passed an authorization bill for new Corps civil works projects since Dr. Sweeney went public about the lack of integrity in Corps planning.
“Authorizing this project signals that cheaters win if they just wait for the heat to die down,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization represented Dr. Sweeney. “As this saga amply demonstrates, Congress is certainly not a fact-based institution.”
Dr. Sweeney had advocated that the Corps explore lower cost, small-scale alternatives
before committing to high-dollar cost lock expansion. The legislation moving
through both houses of Congress pays only lip service to other alternatives
while new lock construction races forward. The bills’ sponsors also resist
any reforms that would require an independent review and confirmation of the
validity of Corps studies.
“Propelled by the politics of pork, Congress can be counted on to pour billions into horse-and-buggy responses to space age problems,” Ruch concluded, noting that based on the Corps’ own numbers that the Upper Mississippi project will return less than a nickel on every federal dollar spent.