Congress seems ready to pass river locks bill

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

WASHINGTON -- A long-delayed measure to build new locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers is expected to pass Congress this week after Senate and House negotiators agreed on a compromise bill.

The $20 billion Water Resources Development Act includes $1.95 billion for seven new locks to replace aging structures that are half the size of a typical 1,200-foot barge tow. An additional $1.7 billion would target ecosystem restoration along the rivers.

Members of a House-Senate conference committee were expected to file their final report Monday so the full House and Senate could vote on the bill before leaving Friday for the August recess.

Construction of the locks means thousands of jobs in Missouri and Illinois and a major victory for barge operators and Midwestern farmers, who have complained for years about the slow pace of grain shipments as they wind their way through the 1940s-era lock system.

"Without a competitive transportation system, the promise of expanded trade for our farmers and commercial growth is empty, job opportunities are lost, and we will be unprepared for the global challenges of this new century," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a key author of the current bill who has been pushing its passage for years.

Though taxpayer and environmental groups have challenged the need for a new lock system, the water projects bill is likely to pass overwhelmingly. The Senate approved the bill in May on a vote of 91-4, and the House passed a similar bill in April on a 394-25 vote.

When Congress passed the original water project act in 1986, lawmakers expected the bill to be renewed every two years. But the last such renewal was in 2000, when a government auditor found that Army Corps of Engineers officials doctored a report to justify new locks on the Mississippi.

Concerns about waste and abuse have bottled up the measure ever since, but this year demand for a huge backlog of water projects gave lawmakers greater incentive to get the bill passed.

A large chunk of the authorized money, about $3.5 billion, would go to Katrina-damaged Louisiana. The bill also includes more than $2 billion for projects in California and $2 billion for Florida, with most of that for Everglades restoration.

The White House has opposed both the House and Senate bills, calling them too expensive and complaining that they assign the corps projects outside its main missions. The Bush administration also opposes the measure because it increases the federal cost-share for many projects.

But the bill, with projects in nearly every state, is likely to be passed with a veto-proof majority.

The Waterway Council estimates 3,000 to 6,000 jobs would be created to upgrade the locks, a project expected to take more than a decade. No firm timetable has been set.

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