House approves new Mississippi River locks

Friday, July 15, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The House voted to approve the nation's costliest waterway navigation project Thursday, a $3.6 billion undertaking to ease shipping on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Environmental and taxpayer groups have opposed the project.

Barge operators and farmers want to speed grain to Gulf of Mexico ports, and the Mississippi is the cheapest route for shipping to export market commodities such as corn and soybeans, coal, chemicals and construction materials.

Government scientists, however, had said that grain exports probably won't increase enough to economically justify the lock overhaul plan. House members overwhelmingly agreed to the plan anyway, as part of a bill to authorize spending $10 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects nationwide over the next 15 years.

"If a project is broke, it's time to fix it," said Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo. "You don't wait to see if it gets better. Traffic has been increasing on the inland waterways system everywhere except in the upper Mississippi because of the declining condition of these locks and dams."

"We do not need another study, we do not need further delay," agreed Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill.

The bill, giving lawmakers' districts in nearly every state an economic boost, passed by a 406-14 vote. Fourteen members did not vote. Senate consideration of an $11.7 billion version is expected later this summer.

"It is not fiscally conservative to let certain assets deteriorate," said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of a House subcommittee on water re-sources and environment.

Before the vote, the White House urged the House to approve the lock overhaul project only if states share half the costs, as with the 30-year, $8.4 billion Florida Everglades restoration effort.

The House bill authorizes spending $1.8 billion to replace older locks that can slow some barges by up to two hours, $1.58 billion for ecosystem restoration and $235 million to improve several upstream locks.

Skeptics pointed to a decline in barge traffic by more than a third since 15 years ago.

"Traffic on the river is not going up," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who with Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., tried unsuccessfully to require more economic justifications before the project could proceed. Two reports from the National Academy of Sciences, issued last October and December 2003, said the Army Corps didn't make a good enough case for it.

An academy panel in 2000 recommended the Army Corps submit all project studies for review by outside experts. That came after an Army Corps economist accused agency officials of doctoring a $54 million study of the Mississippi's navigation system to justify expanding the barge locks. The Army's inspector general also concluded the Army Corps tilted its analysis to favor Midwestern agribusiness interests.

"Pork is king. That's what this bill is cobbled together with," said Steve Ellis, a vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which counted 757 separate projects and studies in the $10 billion bill.

Other major projects include $1 billion in coastal Louisiana projects mainly aimed at slowing erosion, $605 million for the Everglades and $512 million to fix Gulf of Mexico hurricane and storm damage.

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