Several environmental groups have asked Congress to block the Army Corps of Engineers from building seven new locks on the Upper Mississippi-Illinois waterway, saying the project is not economically viable and fails to protect endangered fish and plant life along the five-state, 1,300-mile span.
The groups, which include the Izaak Walton League of America, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation, said a two-decade decline in barge traffic has meant the waterway's existing locks already sit idle most of the time. Unless barge activity picks up and the Corps can demonstrate a viable economic need to improve the network, it would be better off maintaining the existing lock system than replacing what's already there, the groups said.
The Corps has estimated the expansion would cost about $2 billion. The environmental groups, by contrast, have suggested a series of small-scale projects that would improve the waterways' navigational system at a cost of slightly more than $200 million. Under the Corps' proposal, the project would generate only 20 cents in benefits for each dollar spent, the groups said.
"This project just doesn't make sense," said Brad Walker, coordinator of the Upper Mississippi Initiative for the Izaak Walton League, which is spearheading the opposition.
The project would be financed by the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, which currently gets half of its project funding from taxpayer dollars and the other half from taxes on barge fuel. However, the trust fund lacks a sufficient revenue stream to address the current backlog of projects.
Overseers of the trust fund want to change the funding ratio so that 71 percent of revenue would come from general appropriations and the rest from barge fuel taxes. Because of the lack of funds, little or no progress has been made on large-scale projects such as the one proposed on the upper Mississippi.
The environmental groups also contend the proposed project diverts precious financial resources from being used to restore the deteriorating fish and plant life ecosystem on the Mississippi River. Eco-restoration projects on the river span, which were congressionally mandated by the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, are expected to cost $2.5 billion to complete.
Cornel Martin, president and CEO of the Waterways Council Inc. (WCI), said in a statement that "lock and dam modernization is critical to commerce and in the case of the upper Mississippi projects, to eco-system sustainability and restoration." Officials at the Corps of Engineers did not respond to a request for comment.
The dispute with the environmental groups comes at a time when the inland waterways industry is promoting itself as the nation's most environmentally friendly transport mode. According to the WCI, barges produce 19.3 tons of carbon emissions per million ton-miles moved, compared with 26.9 tons for rail and 71.6 tons for trucks.
WCI is also touting barges as the nation's most fuel-efficient mode. Barges can move one ton of cargo 576 miles on a gallon of fuel, compared with 413 miles by rail and 155 miles by truck, the group says. One tow of 15 barges can carry cargoes equal to what can be moved on 1,050 trailers and 216 railcars, the group said.
U.S. Department of Transportation officials have said recently that they would like to see more freight move via water and less on the nation's highways. At the same time, though, congressional funding for waterways projects has been on a steady decline.
At the end of the 2009 fiscal year, the balance in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund stood at $57.7 million, significantly lower than at any time in the past 17 years, according to WCI data. In FY 2002, the year-end balance stood at $412.6 million, the highest during that period.
Neither the Bush nor Obama administration budgets included money to fund the proposed lock improvement project on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The Upper Mississippi-Illinois waterway spans Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.
This article has been revised and expanded since it was originally published.