MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Barge traffic on the Upper Mississippi River since 1993 has fallen short of what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had forecast, prompting the agency to reassess plans to spend up to $1.5 billion to upgrade several locks.
The Star Tribune reported Sunday the data could have another ramification: It could lend credence to a corps economist's allegations that he was ordered to distort a cost-benefit study so it would justify the project.
Donald Sweeney, a corps economist for 22 years, alleged last February that he and another economist were pressured to alter economic assumptions in their study to inflate projections of future barge traffic.
Corps officials have denied any improprieties, but the Army's inspector general's office is investigating.
And, at the request of the Pentagon, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences is reviewing the merits of the $57 million study into the need for Upper Mississippi navigation improvements through the year 2050.
In revisiting that study, the corps hired the consulting firm of Jack Faucett Associates to assess barge traffic during the last six years. The firm found there had been less traffic than the corps had projected, according to agency officials and internal documents.
Bobbie Galford, a spokeswoman at the agency's Upper Mississippi Valley Division in Vicksburg, Miss., acknowledged Friday that "there are new, lower traffic projections" for the river, but she played down their significance
"As part of the study process, we continually incorporate new data to arrive at the best conclusions," she said.
But Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represented Sweeney in his formal complaint, said the new information "is starting to provide validation for what Don Sweeney was saying."
"The central critique of Dr. Sweeney was that this project could not be economically justified for something like 20 years," Ruch said. "And the corps has taken the first step down that road of admission."
A coalition including barge operators has lobbied for years for the corps to lengthen from 600 feet to 1,200 feet several locks on the Upper Mississippi and the Illinois Waterway, which converge near St. Louis. They argue that because today's barge tows are 1,100 feet long, the smaller locks force the decoupling of tows into two lockage operations, which takes longer and raises shipping costs.
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