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UNLOCKING THE MONEY
• Shift the $3.2 billion Olmsted Dam project from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to the federal budget.
• Raise the fuel tax on barges from 20 cents a gallon to 29 cents a gallon
• Streamline Corps of Engineers projects to limit costs and shift priorities to unfinished projects
Six months after proposing a new funding path to finish building the $693 million lock at Chickamauga Dam, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander returned to the stalled project Wednesday to tout a Senate vote next week he hopes could get work started again.
Alexander said construction could resume within two to four years if Congress adopts a funding formula he is pushing for lock and dam projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
If there's no change, the new lock may not be finished before the present 73-year-old structure must be shut down because of problems caused by "concrete growth" in the lock's rock aggregate. Closing the lock would cut off a key transportation and economic artery for East Tennessee and put another 100,000 trucks on the highways, Alexander said.
"Fixing Chickamauga lock is essential to creating good jobs for Tennesseans in a competitive world, and this legislation would accomplish that goal by making such critical infrastructure a priority," he said.
Alexander said the Senate will consider amendments to the Water Resources Development Act next week.
The changes are aimed at freeing up money to complete the lock, which hasn't been funded in the federal budget for the past couple of years. The Chickamauga lock replacement is funded from fuel taxes paid by barge operators, plus funds Congress appropriates through the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.
Virtually all of the trust fund revenue now is being used to complete the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River, whose cost has ballooned from $775 million to $3.2 billion.
Alexander and others in Congress support an industry-backed proposal to pay for the Olmsted project from the federal treasury and boost the trust fund for other projects by raising the fuel tax on barges from 20 cents a gallon to 29 cents.
Some in Congress have resisted a fuel tax increase, however. Alexander acknowledged that the Senate Finance Committee may have to take up the increase to raise needed funds for the Chickamauga Lock.
But Alexander said the barge industry itself has asked Congress to raise the taxes in order to ensure the integrity of locks and dams on the nation's waterways.
Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the industry trade group Waterways Council Inc., said the barge industry supports a higher fuel tax if the funds are used to maintain and improve more locks and dams.
"If we continue to fund Olmsted with our current approach, we'll never be able to get to these other projects in time," she said.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., is among those reluctant to support higher taxes to pay for Army Corps of Engineers projects.
Fleischmann said Wednesday he advocates an overall fix to the nation's infrastructure, including waterways.
"The good news is that both sides of the aisle are looking at the problem," he said.
Fleisch-mann also said lawmakers should look at restructuring funding for infrastructure needs before turning to higher taxes.
"Everything's on the table," he said.
The new lock at the Chickamauga Dam was started nearly a decade ago and is nearly half finished. It is projected to cost about $500 million and take another five years to complete, once work is restarted.
Cline Jones, of the Tennessee River Valley Association, said he is optimistic Congress will address the funding shortfall for the Chickamauga lock this year.
"The low-water crisis we saw last fall and winter on many rivers underscored the importance of our waterways, and the Panama Canal expansion opens the way for even more water transportation," he said. "We have to do something, and I hope people in Washington get that message."
Deputy Business Editor Mike Pare contributed to this report.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.
Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...