Foreign interests are biggest beneficiary of deeper Columbia shipping channelLast week's semi-objective report on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Columbia River channel plans contained insights that are no surprise to anyone who read the Washington Post's 2000 series "The Race to the Bottom."

The Post's articles revealed, for example, that the Corps' $5 billion in spending on channel-deepening projects around the nation in the 1990s often resulted in more benefits to foreign-owned shipping companies than to U.S. taxpayers.

Locally, one expert listening to the report on the Columbia commented "There's a significant probability that the benefits from this project will accrue to parties outside the U.S. economy."

Much as some national leaders would like us to believe the so-called global economy is all for one and one for all, buying a deeper channel for Asian and European corporations is a tough pill to swallow. Foreign shippers obviously should have to pay for their own infrastructure improvements unless some highly compelling U.S. interest is at stake.

That's a hard case to make here, where federally subsidized wheat and barge companies would benefit from a deeper channel. Preserving jobs and revenues from these firms is nice, but hardly compelling outside their immediate area.

In other ways as well, last week's report demonstrates the Corps has not evolved very quickly under Gen. Robert Flowers. He and some other top agency officials appear genuine in their desire to make decision-making less driven by politics. But the Corps remains locked in a close symbiotic relationship with state and national politicians, a marriage that impedes its ability to break away from old patterns.

This isn't meant to minimize what the Corps has accomplished in the way of reform. Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Corps to engage in the kinds of extra scientific and economic studies it commissioned for the Columbia project. It is not quite the lumbering, unstoppable beast it once was.

But last week's new analysis of the Corps' economic study clearly shows either an inability or unwillingness to see the big picture when it comes to deepening the channel. Taken as a whole, signs point to the Corps once again selecting an economic formula that guarantees a favorable outcome.

Examples of this include not asking shippers why they are or are not using Columbia ports, and not considering how other West Coast ports will respond to improvements here. In significant ways, the Corps' analysis treats the proposed Columbia modification plan as if it stands perfectly on its own in splendid isolation from the macro-economic world.

This, too, resembles scenarios from elsewhere in the nation, according to the Post's award-winning series. Many times around the country, members of Congress have pushed through competing channel-deepening projects in neighboring states, bolstered by economic studies that pretend each is the only show in town.

This has given the United States more deep-water ports than can be economically justified. It also has engendered needless environmental costs. America might wisely decide to sacrifice some marine ecosystems in order to have deep-water ports, but it shouldn't have to compromise the natural integrity of every major estuary. But this is the result when politicians and the Corps treat all ports as equally vital cogs in the nation's economic mechanism.

Last week's report accepted the Corps' economic analysis of project costs, but these also were made much prettier thanks to selective vision.

For instance, a five-year U.S. Geological Survey study recently found Corps' sediment-handling policies partially to blame for a growing erosion crisis on the Washington Coast. That problem will cost a fortune to fix, if it can be corrected. If the Corps really wants to behave responsibly, it could start by figuring what it would cost to transport all estuary dredge spoils into the wave system where they can recharge the threatened shoreline. But the Corps won't, knowing that doing so would send the channel-deepening project's cost-benefit ratio far into negative territory.

It is up to Congress to insist that the Corps behave as a responsible steward of the nation's financial and natural assets. This will never happen so long as Congress treats the Corps as its pet conduit for funneling money back into the pockets of local campaign contributors.

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