New York Times,“Carp Solution Could Provide Financial Benefits

March 5, 2010

By David Greising and Daniel Libit

Proposals to block Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes have largely focused on the costs and inconvenience of closing off Chicago-area waterways into Lake Michigan. But now business and environmental groups are exploring a possible upside: a broadly based infrastructure investment that would benefit much of northern Illinois.

Construction, jobs in the freight sector and money-saving improvements in transportation networks could be among the results of efforts to create what environmentalists call “ecological separation” between Lake Michigan and the rivers and canals leading to the Mississippi River, the source of the voracious carp that have made their way nearly to the lake.

Other Great Lakes states estimate if the carp established itself in the lakes it would cause billions in economic damage. They have sued Illinois to prevent that from happening. .

Tour-boat companies, barge operators, recreational boaters and others have cried out against one proposal: the intermittent closing of two locks that connect the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to Lake Michigan. The Illinois attorney general has argued in a court filing that such closings would threaten a system that carries $16 billion in goods through the state each year. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce is expected to release a report next month putting a price tag on what a lock closing could cost.

But an unlikely alignment of environmental and business interests is looking beyond such claims toward the longer-term benefits of a permanent solution to the carp problem. Some of them say separating Lake Michigan and the Mississippi watersheds would lead to construction of shipping and terminal facilities that could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in investment as well as thousands of new jobs.

“People get all worked up about the carp when the large-scale stuff is just not getting attention,” said George A. Ranney Jr., chief executive of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a business group that advocates for regional transportation planning. “The issue is, can we build a consensus on something bigger than just stopping that fish?”

In a 2005 report, Chicago Metropolis 2020 called for building major terminals where freight could be transferred easily among different modes of transportation, like rail cars, trucks and river barges. The terminals would allow shippers to load their goods onto the most efficient means of transport. Construction of five such terminals in key locations on the outskirts of Chicago, along with other efficiencies and infrastructure improvements, could save $5 billion a year in trucking costs alone, the report said.

The report has drawn little attention, but proposals for intermodal transit facilities and other far-reaching measures are beginning to emerge now that Congress, the Obama administration and state governments are trying to find ways to contain the carp.

“The real debate needs to be on how to separate the Illinois waterways from the Great Lakes in ways that benefit the entire region,” said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an environmental group.

Creating a permanent, ecological barrier between Lake Michigan and Illinois waterways would require, at a minimum, building a water treatment facility that would eliminate the possibility that any aquatic creature could move between the lake and Mississippi River watersheds. Backers of such a project liken its potential ecological impact to the reversal of the Chicago River’s flow nearly a century ago. That historic engineering feat kept the city’s waste out of the lake while this one would keep out marauding fish.

The water treatment plant would be part of a larger transportation complex that would enable shipments to move efficiently and quickly up and down the Illinois River and other waterways. The complex might include cranes capable of hoisting boats from the water, railroad sidings and truck bays — and possibly massive conveyor belts to move cargo or even boats.

While the federal government would most likely cover at least part of the construction cost, private industry has already demonstrated a capacity to build such facilities without massive government aid. The railroad company Union Pacific is building a $370 million intermodal facility on 3,900 acres outside Peoria that is set to open this year.

The debate over how best to stop the carp has intensified along with the invasive fish’s seemingly irresistible progress toward Lake Michigan. Illinois has battled other Great Lakes states in a war of words about the costs and risks associated with Asian carp. When a Michigan-sponsored study that was released last month claimed that the closing of two key locks leading into Lake Michigan would cost the Illinois economy only $70 million, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce began a new research effort intended to counter what it saw as an outrageously low estimate.

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