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Spring 2001 Vol. 1 No. 1



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Aerial view of Marseilles Lock and Dam, Rock Island district, Ill., photo by Carol Arney, courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Unlocking Congestion on the Heartland's Main Waterway


Illinois, Iowa, and other Midwestern farmers are struggling to maintain their competitiveness in the feisty export market for corn and soybeans. In addition to rich soil and a favorable climate, they need cheap transportation to get their grain to far-off destinations -- principally Asia.

The Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway serves as the gateway; in fact, some 120 million tons of cargo, mostly grain, are shipped each year by barge on this vast inland artery that includes a series of locks and dams through which each towboat proceeds. Since the locks were built nearly 60 years ago, traffic has swelled and the number of barges in a tow has doubled, increasing congestion and shipping costs.

At the urging of farmers and other shippers, the Army Corps of Engineers spent 12 years and $55 million studying whether to spend the approximately $1 billion needed to enlarge the locks. But in March, the Corps put its study temporarily on hold to take into account the findings of a new study from the National Research Council.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Defense called on the Research Council to review the Corps' study after controversy erupted over the assumptions and methods it had used. Indeed, analyzing whether the social benefits of a waterway project justify the costs and the environmental disruption is an extremely complicated exercise.

The Research Council's report concludes that while the Corps' study encompasses some important conceptual advances, it is flawed in key areas. More importantly, the committee noted that enlarging the locks would take more than a decade, during which congestion would actually increase.

"The Corps apparently considered lock extensions the only remedy for reducing congestion, ignoring a range of less expensive, nonstructural alternatives that offer immediate relief," said Lester Lave, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Lock extensions represent a large investment decision that, once made, cannot be adjusted easily to changing economic and environmental conditions, the report says. But, as farmers stressed during the committee's information-gathering meetings, there also are drawbacks to waiting for more information before deciding whether to build. If river traffic continues to increase on the upper Mississippi, so will congestion -- leading to higher shipping costs, and a weakened ability to compete in international markets.

The Corps could, however, do a variety of things to lessen congestion immediately and lower shipping costs, the committee said. For example, a scheduling program could be implemented, improving the flow of traffic from one lock to the next. Better equipment could help reduce the time it takes to hook barges together. And permits could be distributed, allowing towboat captains to pass through locks at certain times; these permits could be traded among towboat operators as needed. In addition to relieving current problems, these nonstructural approaches would allow more time to assess the need for construction, as well as manage congestion during construction.

Since the Corps' final report was delayed and has not been completed, the committee based its findings on draft documents. It commended the Corps for developing models superior to those used in the past, but found weaknesses in the data and assumptions on which they were based. Among the errors were incorrect forecasts of commodity supply and demand. For example, the Corps' model predicted increases in grain exports between 1995 and 2000, when in fact, export levels remained steady or dropped slightly during that time. The results from the economic models should not be used until these, and other, problems are fixed, the committee stressed.

In addition, the committee questioned the feasibility study's environmental analysis, finding it "insufficient." The committee called on Congress to provide funding for comprehensive environmental studies conducted by multiple agencies. And it suggested that Congress require the Corps to have its environmental and lock-extension studies periodically reviewed by an interdisciplinary group of outside experts.   -- Susan Turner-Lowe


Inland Navigation System Planning: The Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway. Committee to Review the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway System Feasibility Study; Water Science and Technology Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies; and Transportation Research Board (2001, 130 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07405-3; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.75 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Lester Lave, Harry B. and James H. Higgins Professor of Economics, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.



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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences