NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Costly River Projects, But No Traffic

January 10, 2000

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a habit of painting a rosy picture of lines of barges taking advantage of the nation's river systems when it asks Congress for billions of dollars to make them navigable. Such assurances are also music to the ears of Congressmen dreaming of all that federal money for their districts -- and the mighty bridges that will be named for them.

But after all the money is spent, the barges just don't show up.

Over the last century, Congress has lavished $100 billion in 1999 dollars on projects to make rivers safe for navigation. But on most of the 29 Corps-constructed waterways, traffic has never approached the rosy predictions used to justify the engineering.

  • After spending $2 billion to straighten the Red River and promising that 15,000 barge-related jobs would be created after the project was completed, the Corps now reports no new barge traffic -- except for those hauling construction material for the project.
  • The Kaskaskia River system in southern Illinois was tamed to haul high-sulfur coal, but thanks to tougher federal emission rules utilities don't buy much of that anymore -- leaving the Kaskaskia one of the least efficient waterways in the system.
  • The $2 billion Ouachita-Black Rivers barge channel in Arkansas was completed to local fanfare -- but there has never been a barge docked at the Port of Camden, and only one has shown up at the Port of Crossett downriver.
  • The $2 billion, 10-dam Tennessee-Tombigbee project entailed moving more earth than the construction of the Panama Canal and the Corps predicted it would move 23.8 million tons of coal annually -- but last year it floated just 2.6 million tons.

The inland waterways system carries 630 million tons of barge traffic annually. But more than 90 percent of that is carried on just four waterways -- the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

A forthcoming Environmental Defense Fund study shows that 18 of the system's 29 river segments move less than 3 percent of its commerce while consuming 30 percent of its costs. For example, the channelized Pearl River in Alabama and Mississippi carried only one barge in all of 1997.

Source: Michael Grunwald, "A River in the Red," Washington Post, January 9, 2000.


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