Official Advises Caution On Costly River Project

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

A senior Pentagon official has urged the administration to put the brakes on the costliest water navigation and restoration project in history, suggesting the $3.1 billion plan for the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers may not be economically justified.

In a Jan. 17 letter to the Office of Management and Budget, John Paul Woodley Jr., the Army's assistant secretary for civil works, recommended the government proceed with the project's design but hold off on construction until the Army Corps of Engineers revises its economic projections. Woodley wrote that there are "flaws serious enough to limit the credibility and value of the study within the policymaking process . . . especially in the economic analysis."

The project -- which aims to speed the shipment of grain and other products down the Mississippi River by adding locks that can raise or lower vessels to meet the river's level -- has come under fire from environmental and taxpayer groups as well as some congressional Republicans and Democrats.

Although shipping on the upper Mississippi has been declining in recent years, the Corps has predicted it could increase by as much as 45 percent over the next 20 years. Between 1990 and 2004, traffic through the river's five major locks dropped by 40 to 45 percent, in part because Midwestern growers sold an increasing amount of corn to nearby ethanol plants or shipped it West by rail.

Although Woodley's letter does not block the project altogether, it could embolden critics of the plan to fight it in Congress. The Senate may consider a bipartisan amendment that would make construction contingent on an increase in river traffic over the next few years.

"We want to be on solid ground that we are recommending a project that is economically justified, and we don't know that right now," said Pentagon spokesman Doug Lamont.

Corps spokesman David Hewitt said his agency is not taking a stance on Woodley's recommendation but will abide by whatever position the administration adopts. "The ball is now in the court of OMB," he said.

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