NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Politics, Not Economics, Behind Corps Studies

September 14, 2000

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to develop impartial studies evaluating proposed federal water projects -- screening out those that are economically wasteful and destructive, and approving only those whose benefits supposedly outweigh the costs to taxpayers.

But analysts say the Corps often justifies projects backed by powerful political interests. Also, the Corps is in the peculiar position of evaluating the projects it will eventually hire itself for -- the more projects approved, the greater the agency's growth.

A case in point is the proposed deepening of the Chesapeake and Delaware canal, which serves the Port of Baltimore.

  • The Corps claimed the project's benefits would slightly outweigh the $83 million costs -- but a citizens' watchdog group calculated the costs to be at least 50 times the benefits.
  • The group's analysis was vindicated when the congressman representing the district encompassing the canal withdrew his support of the project -- an event nearly unprecedented in Washington.
  • The Corps is often accused of questionable technical analyses; for example, asserting in two different environmental studies that the canal flowed in two directions at once -- east-to-west in one study, west-to-east in the other.
  • John Williams, a retired DuPont engineer who leads the citizen-watchdog team says the Corps' basic position "is that they have to cook the books for this (canal) boondoggle the same way they cook the books for all the other boondoggles."

Over the last decade, the Corps has used the same methodology challenged by the Maryland critics to approve $5 billion worth of channel deepening.

The Corps' own internal reports suggest that the result has been an ecologically and economically destructive race to the bottom in which almost every major American port deepens its ship channels, using federal subsidies extracted by local members of Congress -- with construction managed by the Corps.

Source: Michael Grunwald, "A Race to the Bottom," Washington Post, September 12, 2000.


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