Analysis criticizes proposed Mississippi lock expansion

Mississippi River
The Mississippi River, as if flows through downtown Grand Rapids, Minn. A new analysis says the hard five proposed locks would cause would outweigh the benefits.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

A new analysis criticizes the economic underpinnings of a plan to expand five locks and dams on the Mississippi River.

The expert who reviewed the proposed $2.2 billion project says the economic benefits are much less than claimed. The findings prompted groups Tuesday to call on Congress to stop expansion plans.

River locks in Minnesota are not part of the proposed expansion. The five locks affected are further down, in the river's midsection near Missouri.

However, Minnesotans concerned about the river view it as an ecosystem.

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Each of the 29 locks and dams creates huge pools of water that destroy habitat up and down the river, habitat considered vital for aquatic life and migratory birds.

The 600-foot long concrete lock chambers with adjacent pumps lift or lower river traffic including barges to the next river level.

The locks serve recreational water craft, but they also allow barges carrying aggregate, salt and millions of tons of other commodities including grain to deliver goods up and down the inland waterway. However, the volume of commodities carried by barge has dropped has dropped sharply with more goods being carried by rail.

University of Missouri at St. Louis transportation professor Don Sweeney reviewed the Army Corps of Engineers plans and says cost estimates don't match the reality of past expansion projects.

'... the real costs of implementing these locks and dams improvements will likely greatly exceed the costs they've testified to."

"Given the large escalation in costs of recent Corps of Engineers inland navigation projects, the real costs of implementing these locks and dams improvements will likely greatly exceed the costs they've testified to," Sweeney said.

Sweeney's conclusions prompted several groups led by the Sierra Club and the Izaak Walton League to ask Congress to abandon expansion and focus on habitat restoration.

Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Scott Whitney based in Rock Island, Illinois said the current 600-foot long locks are too small. Barge units 1100-feet long need to be split in half, he said, and locked through one at a time, slowing the movement of goods.

Whitney said expanding the locks is essential for meeting future needs.

"You've got to look at the world trends, forecasts out into the future," Whitney said. "If we intend to be there ready to be there for those future market demands and ability to move commodities and goods we need to do things today because these locks are going to take 20 to 30 years to get into place.

The Mississippi river lock and dam expansion proposal has been on the agenda for nearly 20 years and is currently on hold. There's no money to build it and there's evidence at this point the Obama administration shares the doubts of the previous Bush administration.

There's skepticism the benefits won't come close to matching the $2 billion expansion costs.

In the meantime, river preservation advocates continue to lobby for the kind of Mississippi river habitat restoration that is part of the Obama administration's plan for restoring the degraded Great Lakes habitat.