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Editorial: Mississippi Waste: Billions spent on locks would sink other needs
Detroit Free Press
Published July 25, 2005

The U.S. Senate is the only thing standing between taxpayers and a boondoggle of staggering proportions: a $3.6-billion project to upgrade locks and do restoration work on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers over the next 15 years. The problem with this particular piece of pork, besides the fact that most studies indicate the benefits of new locks will never exceed their cost, is that it will compete for funding directly with other projects that are far more worthy, including many throughout the Great Lakes.

Earlier this month, the House approved the plan as part of a bill that endorses major U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. But several studies indicate Mississippi barge traffic will never increase enough to justify expanding the locks. In fact, barge traffic might drop steeply if more farmers raise corn for ethanol, which usually is refined close to home -- and increased ethanol production is a key, if not necessarily sound, part of the energy bill also under consideration in Congress.

Michigan, of course, has its own locks-related dream: to build a second 1,000-foot lock at Sault Ste. Marie. Among its four locks, only one can handle the biggest ships plying the lakes. A second one that size, which would replace two of the smaller locks, would provide redundancy in case of damage or security problems, a need that has only increased post 9/11. The project is awaiting final approval from Corps headquarters in Washington, although some design work has proceeded in the meantime.

The lakes obviously have other major needs. Once a federal task force completes its report in December, the region may finally have a shot at getting some big money from Congress, a lot of which would need to come from the Corps of Engineers' budget for projects such as cleaning up toxic hot spots. That goal will be much harder to accomplish if hundreds of millions of dollars a year are already flowing wastefully into the Mississippi.

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