Washington, DC — Barge traffic on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway continued an 18-year downward trend through 2007, according to the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures compiled and released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite this long, steep decline in demand for barge transportation, Congress brushed aside a veto to make expansion of the lock system on these rivers one of the centerpieces of its new Water Resources Development Act.
The question now is whether Congress funds the $2 billion lock expansion plan that it authorized. The Water Resources Development Act authorized some 940 projects that would cost a total of approximately $23 billion to complete. The Upper Mississippi Lock project is the second largest project in that bill, behind the multi-year Everglades “restoration” effort.
Large, cumulative and sustained decreases in barge traffic have occurred at every Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway lock, with the most heavily utilized locks experiencing an average 36 percent traffic reduction since the Corps and its boosters began advocating for lock expansion back in the early 1990s. This downward trend is likely to continue as the leading barge line forecasts even lower grain traffic in coming years; barge demand in the region consists primarily of grain and other agricultural products.
Barge traffic is now so light that the locks sit idle more than half of the year. At the same time, an aggressive rehabilitation program pursued by the Corps is keeping lock unavailability at historic lows.
“Traffic is so sparse that the Corps does not even bother to schedule the barges to minimize congestion,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The Upper Mississippi lock expansion is the poster child for pork barrel myopia in Congress.”
This project has been steeped in controversy since 2000, when the Corps’ own lead economist on the project, Dr. Donald Sweeney, filed an explosive whistleblower disclosure documenting how top Corps commanders had grossly manipulated the cost-benefit study used to justify the project. This scandal triggered a battle about how to “reform the Corps” which was a major factor in holding up subsequent Water Resource Development Acts until late 2007.
Nonetheless, the Corps ultimately endorsed the lock expansion but, in response to scathing critiques from the National Academies of Science and other authorities, promised to correct its economic models to eliminate systematic biases favoring construction. Its revised study on the Upper Mississippi project is still not completed.
“When it comes to public works, Congress and the Corps are two addicts who feed off each other,” added Ruch, whose organization represented Dr. Sweeney. “As we did with military base closures where it was recognized that corrosive parochial politics could not be controlled, we need an independent national commission to rank our infrastructure priorities.”