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Corps program: Not so speedy?

By JOY BROWN
STAFF WRITER
The Army Corps of Engineers and others tout the benefits of the Blanchard River flood study being in a new “fast-track” corps program, but officials in two of three other speeded-up areas say they haven’t seen any difference in the progress of their projects.
The Blanchard River study is one of four water projects included in the corps’ “SMART” program, which is part of a corps initiative to speed up studies, reports and public meetings needed before it can make a recommendation to Congress for funding.
The acronym stands for “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.”
Corps officials say different methods it has allowed for the Blanchard River study, specifically doing work concurrently rather than sequentially, have benefited the area and helped with other projects.
But the private-public Northwest Ohio Flood Mitigation Partnership’s goal to have the study completed in seven years won’t come to fruition, mainly because of a lack of federal funding that has at times halted work on the study.
Other SMART projects also have not speeded up.
New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection is working with the corps to restore ecosystems in the city’s Bronx River basin, on the mainland north of Manhattan. Its study is roughly at the same stage as that for the Blanchard River, and it has faced its own challenges.
Ted Timbers, department press secretary, said the river basin study’s involvement in SMART planning narrowed the study’s scope.
Congress authorized the river basin study in 1998, the corps’ New York District said, and a feasibility cost-sharing agreement with the city’s Department of Environmental Protection was signed in 2003.
More than 300 restoration projects were initially identified along the heavily populated and industrialized 55-square-mile corridor.
SMART resulted in “re-scoping” that drastically reduced that number, the corps said.
The study realignment “changed what it was that they were doing,” and narrowed possibilities down to about 15 potential, cost-effective restoration projects, said Chris Gardner, a public affairs specialist for the corps’ New York District.
A final corps recommendation for the Bronx River may be presented to Congress next year, said Lisa Baron, project manager for the corps’ New York District Programs and Project Management Division.
In Texas, SMART has all but stalled the Sabine Pass study to investigate storm damage reduction and ecosystem restoration alternatives, said Jim Suydam, a spokesperson for the Texas General Land Office, which is sponsoring the study.
Sabine Pass is a natural outlet to the Gulf of Mexico between eastern Texas and western Louisiana. It has significant commerical sea traffic.
Inclusion in SMART “kind of came on in the middle of things,” Suydam said.
Since then, the Sabine Pass study “has been slowed down from a bureaucratic mandate that came from on high,” he said.
The study, estimated to cost $5.1 million, “began in 2001 but it’s been delayed even further,” he said, by reducing the project scope and requiring engineers to stop what they were doing and do things in different ways.
“So we’re kind of in limbo,” he said.
“This began as a six-county regional approach,” said Suydam, “and was dialed back to a much smaller effort.”
“Don’t get me wrong, we have a very good working relationship with the corps. I’m not here to bash the corps. But I don’t think they understand what we’re dealing with,” Suydam said.
“After Hurricane Ike hit (in 2008), it changed everything on the coast. It was a big one and we’re still rebuilding to this day,” Suydam said.
He thinks the Texas coasts’ economic factors should weigh just as heavily as population in terms of corps priorities and federal spending.
Information from the corps’ Galveston District indicate it at least has an idea about southeastern Texas’ significance to the nation.
“This region is home to more than 5 million people, three of the nation’s top 10 deep-draft ports and 40 percent of the nation’s petrochemical industry,” said Sandra Arnold, public affairs chief for the Galveston District.
“The Sabine-Neches Waterway is ranked fourth in the nation by tonnage… and has two Liquefied Natural Gas facilities. The Port of Beaumont is a strategic military outload port that supports the war efforts,” she said.
In Charleston, S.C., the South Carolina State Ports Authority reports having a better SMART experience that reflects what the corps has been wanting to accomplish.
The time it will take to finish a Charleston Harbor deepening study is expected to be cut in half, thanks in part to inclusion in SMART, and the cost reduced by millions.
“We’ve seen tremendous benefit from the SMART program, specifically in terms of reducing the time frame of our harbor deepening project feasibility study process,” said Erin Pabst, public relations manager for the port authority.
“The study was originally projected to take five to eight years, and will now be completed in less than four.”
The price tag, originally estimated to be between $18 and $20 million, is now expected to be $13 million or less, the corps reports.
“While funding is certainly an important part of our project, we’re proud of the corps for re-engineering their feasibility process in a way that is more responsible to the dynamic needs of industry while continuing to thoroughly study environmental impacts,” Pabst said.
Charleston Harbor is indicative of the level of funding and attention that can be paid when economic benefits are obvious.
A report showing that a large percentage of vessels that use the harbor are restricted by the tides worried economic development officials.
“With Charleston Harbor being the fourth busiest East Coast port for container traffic… number eight of all U.S. ports for cargo value at $50 billion per year and generating more than 260,000 jobs in South Carolina, it is easy to understand why so many people have taken an interest in the future of the harbor,” the corps’ Charleston District wrote in a study overview.
In 2012, the harbor deepening project was also selected to be a part of President Obama’s economic growth plan called the We Can’t Wait Initiative, which identified five port projects for infrastructure “modernization.”
Online:
Bronx River Basin study:
http://goo.gl/eoTLtf
Sabine Pass study:
http://goo.gl/5sDLOR
Charleston Harbor study:
http://goo.gl/i4muXu
SMART details:
http://goo.gl/XICP1d
Brown: 419-427-8496
Send an E-mail to Joy Brown
Twitter: @CourierJoy

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