By JOHN FLESHER
AP Environmental Writer
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Government officials and Illinois businesses are overstating the economic pain that would result from closing Chicago-area shipping locks to block the Asian carp’s path to the Great Lakes, two transportation specialists said Thursday.
Costs of transporting and handling cargo on Chicago waterways would rise by about $70 million a year if two locks were shut as Michigan and neighboring states want, said Wayne State University business professor John Taylor and James Roach, a transportation consultant.
That’s a tiny fraction of the city’s $521 billion economy and much less damage than the $7 billion fishing industry could suffer from a carp invasion, Taylor and Roach said in a telephone conference. They were hired by the Michigan attorney general’s office to conduct the study and said they’d been paid less than $50,000.
They acknowledged closure would have “negative impacts” on Chicago barge and tour boat operators but said freight could be transferred to rail cars, trucks or pipelines without substantial new costs or traffic jams.
“The claims that even a temporary closure will devastate the local economy and Illinois’ role in the regional, national and global economy cannot reasonably be supported,” Roach said.
Taylor and Roach are serving as expert witnesses in Michigan’s lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to order closure of the locks and eventual separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.
Their analysis shows likely harm to Chicago is “dramatically less” than its business and political leaders claim, said John Sellek, spokesman for Mike Cox, Michigan’s attorney general.
“The losses would be much higher than that,” responded Lynn Muench, vice president of the American Waterway Operators, a trade group representing barge and tug companies.
Her organization has not calculated cost estimates but the Illinois Chamber of Commerce is conducting a study, said Jim Farrell, director of its infrastructure council.
More than $16 billion worth of goods are transported on Illinois rivers annually, Farrell said in a Supreme Court affidavit. State officials said shipping cargo through just one lock — the O’Brien — costs $190 million a year less than transporting it on land.
“The economic harm that will result from the closure of the O’Brien and the Chicago locks is real and significant,” Farrell said.
Taylor and Roach said shutting the locks wouldn’t halt shipping on the 70-mile-long network of canals and rivers. Instead, freight could be unloaded below the locks and hauled a short distance in trucks, rail cars or pipelines. That would create more jobs than the barge industry would lose, they said.
About 7 million tons of cargo a year would be affected — less than 1 percent of freight traffic in the Chicago area, the study said, adding that affected barge traffic would be the equivalent of two loaded railroad trains.
Farrell said the report failed to consider higher costs and unemployment resulting from freight traffic disruption, while understating the locks’ importance to shipping. During the year beginning June 2008, more than 3,800 loaded barges passed through the O’Brien lock, the equivalent of 306,000 truckloads, he said.
During two recent public meetings, dozens of tour boat company workers said closing the locks would put them out of business.
The debate has overshadowed a wide-ranging battle plan announced by the Obama administration this month. It includes more than two dozen actions, including use of nets and poisons to nab Asian carp that may have slipped beyond an electric barrier 25 miles south of Lake Michigan.
Illinois authorities began netting and electrofishing operations Wednesday and continued Thursday but had yet to catch any of the despised fish, despite DNA test results suggesting their presence in the waterway.