Seventh in a series of Big River articles on the Army Corps Navigation Study.

Corps Study Delayed

By Reggie McLeod
From Big River November 2000

Last fall the Army Corps of Engineers delayed until this fall the release of its $57-million study of whether to expand the shipping system on the Illinois and Upper Mississippi rivers. This October the Corps again put off releasing the study for another year.

In the fall of 1992 the lame-duck Congress told the Corps to conduct the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway Navigation Feasibility Study. It began with a proposed $23-million budget. Many accused the study of being just a process to justify costly and environmentally damaging corporate welfare.

The way the study was conducted seemed to support those suspicions: First the engineering part of the study was revised to lower the cost estimates for constructing longer locks. Then, when the preliminary cost/benefit part of the study showed that expanding the locks was not economically feasible, the study’s chief economist was removed from the study and economic data were quickly revised to show that massive expansion of the system was a good investment.

Last February the former chief economist, Donald Sweeney, filed a suit against the Corps with the Justice Department, accusing his bosses of pressuring him and others on the study to change the numbers to justify expansion. In Sweeney’s affidavit, he pointed out that projections of river traffic increases for the 1990s had already been proven to be much higher than the actual traffic.

Apparently a $57-million study for a $1- to $1.5-billion construction project does not include checking projections against real data. When confronted with the inconsistencies, the Corps rehired the company that made the original projections, Jack Faucett Associates, Bethesda, Maryland, to make the new projections. Independent review of both the original and new forecasts found them both based on flawed methods and assumptions. Nevertheless the Corps intends to use the new projections to revise the study.

The part of the study estimating the environmental cost of expanding the shipping system is the only part that has not been released. Nevertheless, the Corps held public meetings this year and last asking people to decide on a plan of action.

The Corps and its study are currently being investigated by the Justice Department and the Pentagon. The study is being reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.

Meanwhile, Congress has been considering a $7.8-billion Corps project to restore the Everglades, which were damaged by earlier Corps projects. Rather than actually restoring the flow of water to the Everglades, the project would employ massive pumps and underground storage to regulate the flow of water.

The U.S. Senate has considered several plans to reform the Corps, including a proposal by Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to require an independent review of Corps projects that cost more than $25 million.

Reggie McLeod is editor and publisher of Big River, an independent magazine about the Upper Mississippi River.

Copyright 2000, Big River

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