Locks and dams project moves ahead, hesitantly

Going through a lock
Going through a lock on the Mississippi
Erin Galbally/MPR Photo

The Army Corps of Engineers wants $2.3 billion to build new locks, restore ecological habitat and repair old locks.

But a report prepared by Assistant Secretary for the Army John Paul Woodley Jr. says the Corps has not justified the expense. Woodley is the top civilian in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers. He is also an appointee of President Bush.

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He says the cost benefit analysis for the Upper Mississippi project is "uncertain" and "inconsistent."

"Our basic concern is that not that it's not an economically justified project necessarily," Woodley says. "But that we don't have the tools that we usually like to see and rely upon to make judgements on the likelihood of economic justification."

Some independent economists project that for every dollar the corp spends on the project, the Corps would get as little as a nickel in return.

Even if the Pentagon... determines that the study is invalid, that doesn't mean the Congress won't appropriate money to expand the lock and dam system.

Woodley's report also states traffic on the river has been flat or declining over the last 18 years. Barge owners complain about bottlenecks at the locks, and say that justifies building new facilities.

Woodley suggests global positioning systems that track barges or help schedule barge traffic have not been considered. And his report states the project's habitat restoration plan simply doesn't take into account the ecological impact of additional locks and dams.

Many of these concerns were voiced in 2000 by a whistleblower within the corps. Woodley says they were also made by the National Academy of Science several times.

"When I'm advised by the National Academy that this an interesting exercise but should not be regarded as a substitute for economic modelling using properly devised and sophisticated and validated econometric tools I have to take that seriously," Woodley says.

But just as Woodley appears to be cutting off the funding flow, he leaves a lock gate open. He says a five-year delay in construction of the locks would cost the nation a total of $110 million. He conditionally authorized the project so long as new models can be shown to justify the project.

Chuck Spitzak is project manager for the Upper Mississippi navigation project. He says the Corps is developing better ways of measuring costs and benefits.

chuck
Chuck Spitzak is the Army Corps of Engineers' project manager for the Upper Mississippi Navigation Efficiency and Ecological Restoration Project.
Sea Stachura/MPR Photo

"While we're moving ahead with design on some features," he says, "we're also reconsidering the process used in taking in new information and new research that's been accomplished."

Spitzak's team is designing the new locks and dams as well as refurbishing the existing locks.

But what if the results of the new economic modeling don't come back in the Corps favor? When asked if there's a chance the Corps won't push to build the locks Chuck Spitzak responds simply.

"I suppose there is, but I don't know."

There is a lot people don't know at the moment.

Woodley submitted his report to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which makes funding recommendations on behalf of the executive branch. The OMB may agree with Woodley's recommendations to wait until better information is available. Or it may agree with the Corps' original report. Or it may make separate recommendations. That report is due in early April.

Big River Magazine Editor Reggie McCloud has watched the lock controversy for years. He says even if the OMB does not recommend funding for the new locks the project isn't dead.

"Even if the Pentagon which supposedly tells the Army Corps of Engineers what to do even if the Pentagon determines that the study is invalid, that doesn't mean the Congress won't appropriate money to expand the lock and dam system," McCloud says.

But McCloud says the federal pot of money is only so large. This year the Upper Mississippi project will be competing for dollars with the levies and dams in the gulf coast.

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