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Lawmakers want Corps to speed approval process on Metro East levee plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2012 - WASHINGTON — Responding to local concerns about potentially costly delays, lawmakers on Capitol Hill want action by the Army Corps of Engineers to speed the process of approving the $160 million project to bolster Metro East levees.

“With hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses depending on these upgrades, the Army Corps of Engineers should be helping this effort, not standing in the way,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Friday in a statement. 

After meeting with local officials this week in O’Fallon, Ill., the senator said he would ask to meet with the assistant secretary of the army for civil works, Jo Ellen Darcy, “to discuss ways in which Illinois delegation members can help speed the process along while ensuring that all appropriate steps are taken in preparation for the flood protection system repairs, including all safety measures required by the Army Corps.”

U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, also said that “we are looking at all options to move this project forward.” In a statement to the Beacon, Costello said he and other lawmakers have let the Corps know of “the need to expedite the approval process.”

And Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, whose district includes about half of Madison County, said in an interview that he was “tired of the Corps of Engineers’ excuses” and would press for action. “I’m tired of them not being able to help the locals rapidly repair their levees.”

Metro East officials are concerned that delays — and possible design changes — by the Corps in approving plans to bolster the region’s levees may end up adding to the project’s cost and upsetting its timetable.

Les Sterman, chief supervisor of the levee construction for the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council (FPD council), complained that the Corps took an extra seven months to approve a “review plan” for the levees, then said that it could not certify two federal levee segments that the Corps itself is repairing and has provided no assurances for the timetable of approving the Metro East project.

“The Corps' unwillingness to certify their own levees is incomprehensible and will cost us yet more time and more money as it leaves us with no choice but to have our team of consultants do the certification,” said Sterman. The FPD council’s board last week approved initial funds to pay an engineering firm to start the process of “certifying” those levee segments, which could cost at least $500,000.

In a statement, the Corps’ St. Louis District said it regretted the delay in approving a review plan — which had to be coordinated closely with the Corps’ national procedures — but insisted that it would be able to grant permission for work to begin within 130 days. 

That timetable was questioned by FPD council officials and lawmakers. If the Metro East levees are not bolstered and certified, flood insurance rates would increase sharply for some of the 150,000 residents and businesses in the American Bottom floodplain area.

The project’s estimated $160 million cost would be paid for by the money raised from the quarter-cent sales tax that started in January 2009 in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties. If it can obtain permission from the Corps, the FPD council wants to start levee construction in May, finish the work in 2014 and send the levee “certification” to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2015 so its flood maps can reflect the certified levees, which would avoid sharp increase in flood insurance rates.

“Our region cannot afford to have our plans threatened by continued bureaucratic delays,” said St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern in a statement. “We've done everything possible here at the local level and are ready to move forward with this project that will create jobs, safeguard 156,000 residents and 55,000 existing jobs, and secure the economy of the area.”

Costello said, “The local effort to address needed levee improvements has been significant and it is extremely important to begin this work as soon as possible.” Shimkus added that “the locals are doing everything we are asking them to do... The federal government — and the Corps — is letting us down, big time, on this.”

The Metro East program manager for the Corps’ St. Louis District, Bruce Munholand, said in a statement: “Although we received approval of our plan later than we had hoped, the delay has not impacted our ability to meet the commitments necessary to support the FPD council's schedule.”

But Scott Schanuel, interim executive director for the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, told the Beacon on Friday that the half-year delay in getting the initial Corps review documents makes Metro East officials “skeptical” that the Corps can meet other deadlines. “The review plan laid out no specifics, in terms of dates or deadlines,” he said. “We’re guessing that is a bad indication of how efficient the Corps will be in actually reviewing and approving the levee plan.”

The FPD council approved the initial design for the Metro East levee improvement project last May and discussed the Corps’ response at a meeting on Feb. 15. More details are available at the FPD’s website. Additional information can be found at the website of the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance.

Rich Conner, president of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which administers the Levee Issues Alliance, said that group will be pushing for policy changes at the Corps to allow the approval process to be expedited.

But Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan said after the board meeting that “what we've seen to date gives us little confidence that things will continue to move at a pace that meets our deadlines.” In a statement, he said, “Every delay from this point forward threatens the public's safety because it threatens our ability to implement the locally funded planned improvements by 2014.”