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Commentary: Let's have some recipes with that pork

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2009 - The necessity for Congress to pass a "stimulus package" is real, but it's disheartening to see fortunes being committed with little or no restriction as to how they will be spent.

The huge, executive bonuses paid by failing Wall Street firms that had just received TARP funds prove that public support of unregulated, selfish interests does not ensure civil benefit. Yet, as if we are all too stupid to catch on, American taxpayers seem to be about to be stuck for yet another enormous encumbrance, with much of the stimulus funding being offered to favored interests with few or no restrictions.

As an example, the current stimulus bill appropriates several billion dollars to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to be used for projects of the Corps' choice.

The American public is sure to be disappointed, as Corps projects have been criticized from many quarters for being wasteful, not cost effective, and environmentally damaging. Much evidence has accumulated that Corps navigational projects have aggravated flooding and damaged ecosystems. Nevertheless, the Corps has lobbied heavily for the authority to expand nearly all the locks and dams on the Mississippi River, for placing more rock dikes in our rivers and for increased funds for dredging: all of which benefit the barge industry.

To understand how this process works, take a drive to Alton to see the eagles and trumpeter swans, and then stop by the visitor center at the colossal Melvin Price Locks and Dam, named of course for a member of Congress. While there, ask a Corps representative what fee is charged to lock a huge, 1,200 foot-long barge through this billion dollar structure. The answer, if you haven't guessed, is zero.

It's interesting to reflect on how this "pricing" impacts other sectors of the transportation industry such as our struggling railroads, who have to maintain their own right of way, using their own funds and employees.

Alternatively, visit the well-staffed Kaskaskia lock and dam further south. Ask a Corps employee when he last saw a barge lock through this structure. Or visit any stretch of the lower Missouri River, stay a while, and draw your own conclusion about how many barges you see pass by.

If you don't have several days to wait for one, a January 2009 GAO report concludes that barge traffic on the Missouri River is more than tenfold less than on the Mississippi. Moreover, this report shows that a staggering 84 percent of that small tonnage is a low value commodity: sand and gravel, most of which is moved on short runs totaling a mile or less.

Instead of fostering the valueless projects that an unrestrained Corps is sure to give us, why doesn't Congress insist that the Corps accomplish some of the many worthwhile things it could immediately do? There's no shortage of such projects, even in our local area.

One priority should be to strengthen the decertified levee system that protects Metro East. Another would be to install gates on the levees further north, practically all of which were overtopped only a few months ago. Gates would protect those same levees from damaging overtopping and failure, while providing the potential for better flood control, floodwater storage, habitat restoration, carbon sequesterization and soil improvement.

Another useful project would remove the huge quantity of radioactive waste that was illegally dumped in the unlined Westlake landfill, incredibly situated in the floodplain in Bridgeton.

Such projects would benefit and protect American citizens, a more important goal than providing another free lunch for politically favored interests.

Bob Criss is a professor in the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University. He is the coauthor of the 2003 book, "At the Confluence: Rivers, Floods, and Water Quality in the St. Louis Region."