The Upper Mississippi River is a key navigation route for
commercial vessels traveling to and from the Great Lakes. The U-S
Army Corps of Engineers is studying ways to enhance the river’s traffic
capacity. One option is to expand some of the locks. That would reduce
the time it takes for barges to travel between ports. But one Corps
economist says the benefits of lock expansion don’t outweigh the costs.
Now, he’s blowing the whistle on those whom he says have fixed the
numbers to justify a one billion-dollar construction project. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kevin Lavery reports:
The Upper Mississippi River is a key navigation route for commercial
vessels traveling to and from the Great Lakes. The U-S Army Corps of
Engineers is studying ways to enhance the river’s traffic capacity. One
option is to expand some of the locks. That would reduce the time it takes
for barges to travel between ports. But one Corps economist says the
benefits of lock expansion don’t outweigh the costs. Now, he’s blowing the
whistle on those whom he says have fixed the numbers to justify a one
billion-dollar construction project. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Kevin Lavery reports:
Lock and Dam number 25 near Winfield, Missouri straddles the upper
Mississippi 40 miles north of St. Louis. Last year, 39 million tons of
grain, soybeans and other cargo passed through here. Though it’s winter,
water continues to rush through the dam. However, ice on the river farther
north has slowed barged traffic here to near non-existence.
A lock is essentially a watery elevator that raises and lowers boats to
different depths. Each lock is 600 feet long, but a typical 15-barge tow is
12-hundred feet long. Walter Feld is with the Corps of Engineers’ St.
Louis District. He says a tow has to break apart to negotiate the lock’s
“One lockage would take about 30 minutes. When you break that tow
apart and put two pieces together, it takes probably closer to 90 minutes.
So all that delay adds up to triple the length of time to get through
In 1993, the Corps began a 58-million dollar study of the upper
Mississippi in an attempt to plan for the needs of the navigation industry
over the next 50 years. Dr. Donald Sweeney was named the lead economist
for the study:
“The feasibility study is a planning and implementation
You’re required to investigate the economic effects and environmental
consequences of whatever actions you might propose.”
At the start of the study, Sweeney says his team was told to give its best
unbiased estimate of the situation:
“And I believe that was truly the spirit of the study up
late 1997, at which it turned 180 degrees.”
Among other alternatives, the Corps looked at doubling the size of seven
locks to reduce congestion on the river. But the economics team concluded
the benefits gained would not be worth the cost of construction. Sweeney
says the analysis showed such a project would result in a loss of up to
20-million dollars a year.
In a written affidavit, Sweeney testified that top Corps officials
the economists to alter their analysis to justify spending a billion
dollars to expand the locks. The report points to a number of internal
memos indicating the Corps’ desire to appease the barge industry. In 1998,
Sweeney was relieved as head of the economics team, five years after the
Corps spokesman Ron Fournier says the media has underplayed the full scope
of the navigation study, and that lock expansions are not the only option at
the agency’s disposal.
“The study is actually navigation improvements, which is
variety of alternatives for the river. We have alternatives such as
extending the guide walls, adding mooring cells or buoys for barges to
tie up to, and then again also the expansion of the lock chambers
Fournier says Sweeney failed to take into account some of those
alternatives, many of which he says were added since the economist left the
“The navigation study has been evolving for the past seven
years; and as new data is received from the shipping industry, from the
farm growers and from a variety of other economists throughout the
country, new calculations are being used and different results are
Aside from the financial issues associated with large-scale construction,
environmentalists say lock expansion would jeopardize wildlife on the river.
Washington D.C. based Environmental Defense has taken a leading stance in
the issue by releasing many of the internal Corps documents to government
officials. Senior attorney Tim Searchinger says the papers clearly show
most of the people in the study had a great deal of professional integrity,
and that some may have been pushed into doing the wrong thing.
“There is a top ranking leadership that’s willing to cause
environmental harm, even when the analysis clearly shows that from a
purely economic standpoint, the project isn’t justified either.”
Another reason why economist Donald Sweeney says the Corps is pushing
expansion is because such projects would bolster the agency’s stagnant budget.
“They’re trying to become a bigger, more vital agency.
sometimes that conflicts with a purely unbiased scientific analysis of
potentially a billion dollars worth of expenditures.”
Late last month, the Office of Special Counsel declared the Corps likely had violated the law in
catering to the interests of commercial navigation. The OSC is the independent federal agency with
whom Sweeney filed his affidavit. The office has ordered Defense Secretary William Cohen to
conduct an investigation and report back by the end of April. Spokesman Ron Fournier says from the
start, the Corps has been forthright about the
study both with Congress and the public.
“We feel that when this investigation is complete,
find there’s no wrongdoing, and of course the
study has been done in an above
Corps will prove that the
board, upright manner.”
The investigation has also reached the congressional level. The Senate
committee on Environment and Public Works is conducting a number of public
hearings on the study this month.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium,
I’m Kevin Lavery in St. Louis.