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Department of Boondoggles: The Great Wall of St. Paul

Usually when the words "boondoggle" and "Mississippi River" are uttered in the same sentence, you can bet that the phrase "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers" will follow in short order. As has been well-documented, the Corps loves to pour tons of concrete (and billions of dollars) into the Mississippi for projects with lousy economic justification and dire ecological consequences.

But the Corps is not alone in this proclivity. The latest competition comes courtesy of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (or MAC), which dearly wants to construct a one-and-a-half mile dike around the St. Paul Downtown Airport, otherwise known as Holman Field.

The rationale behind the $47 million project? To prevent periodic flooding from the adjacent Mississippi. By the MAC's own count, high waters have caused the airport to be shut down for a total of 210 days--over the past 80 years. For you mathletes, that's fewer than three days a year. So in other words, flooding constitutes a very occasional inconvience to the CEOS at 3M and Ecolab who prefer to use Holman Field than to rub shoulders with all the plebians at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. That's worth $47 million?

Although the Federal Aviation Administration announced this week that it will commit $20 million to the project, the dike is far from a fait accomplit. Today, a divided St. Paul Planning Commission postponed its scheduled vote on the matter until February 24. And while the project enjoyed a vigorous champion in former mayor Randy Kelly (and plenty of support from institutional boosters), new mayor Chris Coleman has not publicly announced his stance.

That is a source of considerable comfort to Whitney Clark, the executive director of the non-profit organization, Friends of the Mississippi River. Among Clark's objections to the project: the loss of more than 500 acres of floodplain, the limited benefit to the average citizens of St. Paul and, put plainly, sheer ugliness.

"It's going to have a huge impact on the way it feels to be on the river," Clark observes. "If you're in a canoe or a little john boat, you are going to be looking at a 20 foot high wall for one and a half miles."