WASHINGTON – The Army Corps of Engineers doesn't necessarily need a new field office in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
But with visions of restaurants and condominiums along their downtown waterfront, city leaders there decided several years ago that the Corps' existing facility was standing in the way of progress.
So did Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a Tuscaloosa native who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has big say on how much money the Corps gets and where it's spent.
The resulting effort to have the buildings moved — at a cost of about $32 million — offers a case study in how parochial interests often shoot to the front of the line for scarce Corps of Engineers dollars.
Two years after Hurricane Katrina exposed glaring weaknesses in the agency's flood controls, spending bills moving through Congress look just as they did before, loaded with local-interest projects that the agency hasn't requested, including harbor improvements in Alaska and upgrades to boat ramps and docks on recreational lakes.
To be sure, Congress has spent billions of dollars to protect the Gulf of Mexico. But as recent floods in Texas and Kansas showed and as experts have warned for years, the nation's water infrastructure is vulnerable across the country.
"The half-life of lessons learned from disasters is pretty brief," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense and a longtime critic of Corps spending priorities. "They're back to business as usual by and large.... It's political muscle driving projects, not merit."
The backroom maneuvering to get the Tuscaloosa project on track illustrates the symbiotic relationship that the Corps has with many lawmakers, particularly the 95 members of the Senate and House appropriations committees. The agency is often eager to play along on pet projects that please the appropriators who write its budget.
For a century the Corps has been a presence in the central Alabama college town of Tuscaloosa, located more than 200 miles north of the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast. The current facility, an aging complex of maintenance shops and a field office overseeing operations on several rivers, houses about 30 employees.
Corps officials acknowledge that moving the buildings isn't a priority, though the existing complex is old and ugly.
"It's functional, it works," said Patrick Robbins, a spokesman for the agency's district office in Mobile. "Would we have pushed to move that facility if the city wasn't redoing their waterfront? No. But you have to look at it in the context of what the city is trying to do."
Those plans have evolved since the project first popped up several years ago. Initially, the entire site was to be cleared and the Corps facilities moved to a different area of town. The land would then be sold or transferred to the city.
Under the latest proposal, everything would be demolished, but only the maintenance and storage facilities would be moved. A new Corps office would be built on part of the cleared riverfront site, possibly with a 3,800-square-foot visitors' gallery highlighting the agency's regional history.
Robbins said the relocation has never made it onto the regional district's budget request, much less the national office's request to Congress with its billions of dollars in maintenance and infrastructure needs.
Shelby, who owns an apartment building and a small office building in Tuscaloosa and graduated from the University of Alabama there, has long served as the city's patron in Washington, winning nearly $100 million for local projects recently, including a new federal building and streetscape improvements.
In a written statement, he said the Corps' current facilities are inadequate and outdated. In press releases aimed at local media, he showed more interest in the economic benefit, calling the relocation of the Corps' facilities a "key to a brighter future for Tuscaloosa.".
After hearing the city's pitch to relocate the Corps office several years ago, Shelby set the wheels in motion by asking the district Corps office to work up a cost estimate and a rough project description.
"They asked us what we thought it would cost and that's the figure we came up with," Robbins said.
With the $32 million estimate in hand, Shelby won an installment of $4 million in a 2006 Corps spending bill. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee signed off on another $5 million, which if cleared by Congress would likely provide enough momentum to keep the project from stalling — as some Corps authorizations do.
"That piece of property presents a real opportunity for sustained development," said Mayor Walt Maddox, outlining plans for the city's downtown Riverwalk development of trails, restaurants and shops. "You want to take advantage of what is there on the riverfront."
To critics of the Corps, revitalization in Tuscaloosa isn't the agency's business.
"The whole process has become a case where it serves itself as opposed to the national objectives," said Sean O'Keefe, the chancellor of Louisiana State University who chaired an independent panel that issued a critical report on Corps budgeting in March. "This is not an abstraction ... it has consequences on human life."
The panel urged the Corps to overhaul its budget planning, establish a comprehensive national priority system and change its decision-making process to something more open and coherent. It added that the Corps cannot successfully reform its budgeting without lawmakers going along.
Although Congress implemented new rules this year requiring lawmakers to identify themselves alongside their earmarks, the project descriptions in the bills remain vague. And because the Corps doesn't have a transparent system for prioritizing projects, it's difficult to determine which have been fully vetted.
While $5 million toward a new field office in Tuscaloosa is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Corp's proposed $5.5 billion budget next year, critics maintain it's money ill spent.
"What we heard right after Hurricane Katrina was a lot of people saying the Corps didn't get enough money ... that our infrastructure is falling apart across the country," Ellis said. "Then they're directing unnecessary money to a project that one senator wants, and we don't know how many other Tuscaloosa-type projects are in this bill."