Logjam On The Rivers

April 9, 2009 01:39 PM

President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package is a major disappointment for those who hoped it would bring big bucks to rebuild the lock and dam infrastructure in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

The $4.6 billion that the plan designates for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects is directed at finishing previously funded endeavors, not starting new ones. Long-awaited rehabilitation work on seven locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers has to wait longer. That's a blow to Midwestern farmers, who would benefit greatly from a more efficient system for both shipping grain downstream and bringing inputs upstream.

Those in industries dependent on river shipping originally were hopeful the economic stimulus package would finally get the lock and dam projects under way. Now it appears those hopes are on hold.

Backlog. "We got hamstrung right out of the gate by this provision on new starts," says Paul Rohde, Midwest area vice president of the Waterways Council.

"What Congress did is give the Corps money to get through their backlog of projects," adds Elizabeth Jones, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) director of congressional relations. "The Hill felt they needed to get through them before going on to anything else."

 The Upper Mississippi River rehab projects would cut the amount of time necessary for towboats and their 15-barge loads to move through the locks by expanding them from the current 600' length to 1,200', matching the locks on the Ohio River.

The Water Resources Development Act of 2007, signed into law by President George W. Bush, directed the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild and expand five Upper Mississippi River locks and dams, along with two on the Illinois River, all considered obsolete by modern standards. The Waterways Council and other groups, including the AFBF and Midwest state commodity groups, have urged rehabilitation of the 70-plus-year-old locks for three decades or more. Funding for those projects has never been appropriated, however.

Many Midwestern-state members of Congress, including James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, pushed the lock and dam rehabilitation idea, Rohde says. "Unfortunately, the bean counters in Washington, D.C., were leading the agenda of how much the Corps could spend, without consulting the Corps.

"They came up with the $4.6 billion based on the Corps' spending. But the Corps said it could spend $16.7 billion over a 24-month period," Rohde says. "So you can see there's a big difference in the money in the package and what the Corps wanted. It is slated for existing projects, but it's up to the Corps to determine where it will be spent."

Falling behind. Since 2005, the Corps has been doing preconstruction engineering and design work on the seven locks and dams targeted for rehabilitation. "We're falling further behind on design work for Lock 22 and Lock 25 on the Upper Mississippi and the La Grange lock on the Illinois," Rohde says. "They should be in the construction phase now because preconstruction engineering and design have been funded for four years. But with the funding levels we've got, we've been hamstrung."

The best thing about pushing existing projects toward completion is that it will clear them off the books, allowing the Corps to eventually concentrate on new ones, he says. "We've got to get those old projects finished and out of the way before we can get going on the new Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River projects. We've got to get some real traction and some money the Corps can use. Money is what it's going to take."

"We support rehabilitating the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River locks and dams," says Farm Bureau's Jones. "A lot of people thought the stimulus package would be a vehicle for getting it done, and they now are disappointed."

Rohde also worries that reducing emphasis on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois projects may mean long-term shifts in priorities. "The Corps is going to seriously look at moving people away from the preconstruction engineering and design activities to other things," he says. "Unless the Corps gets serious funding equity, it's going to be tough to move those people back." 

To contact Charles Johnson, e-mail cjohnson@farmjournal.com.

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