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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gambling Better Bet Than Barge Business

SHREVEPORT, Louisiana -- Shreveport is a working port again for the first time in a century, and the economy is humming.

Unemployment is down around 4 percent. Development has returned to the riverfront. A snazzy convention center is in the works; a modern "multicultural center" is coming soon.

The catch is that the local boomlet has nothing to do with the new port. Shreveport is hot because of six flashy new riverboat casinos, which have brought in 10,000 jobs and 12 million annual visitors, creating the nation's No. 3 gaming destination in just five years. Navigation got started here at just about the same time, but even its boosters concede their vision of a barge boom has yet to materialize.

A new study by University of Maryland transportation economist Robert Stearns found that as of 1997, the waterway's volume of commercial traffic was only about 150,000 tons - about one twenty-fifth the predicted haul for that year. Stearns, a former official with the Army Corps of Engineers, described the waterway as "a make-work project."

Still, the Red's boosters insist it is on the verge of a barge explosion. Their prime evidence is the Port of Shreveport-Bossier; after spending $80 million in public funds, it did see more barges this year. Port director John Holt Jr. is trying to cut a deal to send millions of tons of chicken feed along the Red.

"You can't blame us for the failed projects of the past; we're not going to repeat their mistakes," Holt said. "People used to build these waterways and say, hey, we're here, the business will come. Not us. We're going to go out and find business. You can bet on it."

But the Stearns report suggests that Shreveport's roulette wheels would be safer bets. It shows that even if commerce on the Red magically doubles every year for the next five years, it would fall far short of the long-term corps projections of 8 million tons a year. In other words, the study says, the fortune-telling that justified the project is "simply not plausible."

And the price tag is still rising. The corps spends $8 million a year dredging the Red, stabilizing its banks and staffing its locks. It is shoveling out an additional $21 million a year on visitor centers and other construction.

"The fact is, money like that is going to be spent no matter what happens to the Red River," Holt said with a sheepish grin. "Everyone knows that if we don't get it, it gets spent on a boondoggle somewhere else. It might as well get spent here."

"Well how about that?" Paul Dickson chirps, crouching in the reeds of his picturesque Red River duck blind. "That's a semipalmated plover! He should be in South America by now!"

Dickson is writing a book about the birds of the Red, and 6 a.m. is his busy time.

Lots of outdoorsy types hang out on the Red, but not many of them know its ebbs and eddies as well as Dickson. His grandfather founded the navigation-obsessed Red River Valley Association, but Dickson's main concern is wildlife. So far, less than 1 percent of the Red River navigation project's funding has been for environmental mitigation, but Dickson and his brother, Skipper, are pushing Congress to create a 28,000-hectare refuge here.

Even corps officials acknowledge that on many rivers their navigation projects were disastrous to wildlife. Navigable rivers must be calm, simple, static. Barges need 2.7 meters of water, always, with no hidden sandbars or sharp turns. So the corps has manhandled rivers into narrow, straight, stable channels.

Environmentalists warn that interrupting the flow of the Red may allow toxic chemicals to buildup in its navigation pools; fish in the nearby Ouachita have developed unsafe mercury levels since its dams were completed in 1985.

Of course, no one is sure what will happen to the ecology of the channel. But the corps may not wait to find out. It just launched a $5 million study of a project to extend navigation 216 kilometers beyond Shreveport, up to the poultry region around Index, Arkansas.