published Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Stalled Chickamauga project spurs debate in Congressional race

Work on the Chickamauga Lock is halted in this view below the Chickamauga Dam.
Work on the Chickamauga Lock is halted in this view below the Chickamauga Dam.
Photo by Tim Barber.

The White House budget plan for fiscal 2015 includes no money to maintain or replace the crumbling Chickamauga Lock, threatening to further delay river transportation in East Tennessee.

The Obama administration is proposing to cut funding for civil works projects done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by $1 billion next year. For the second consecutive year, the president's budget released Tuesday does not fund any of the aggressive maintenance previously done to maintain the integrity of the 74-year-old lock at the Chickamauga Dam, which suffers from "concrete growth" that weakens lock gate walls and supports.

Construction of a new and larger replacement lock stalled four years ago when funding ran out in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is equally funded by river barge fuel taxes and the U.S. treasury. Because of cost overruns by the Corps of Engineers' top priority project -- the $3 billion lock and dam project at Olmsted Lock on the Ohio River -- there is no money for lock replacements on the Tennessee River, including stalled projects at the Chickamauga and Kentucky dams.

"I'm afraid it doesn't look good for this year or next," said Cline Jones, executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association, a trade group for the barge industry that is pushing for a new lock.

Republican congressional candidate Weston Wamp on Wednesday blamed the "hyper partisanship" of U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleishmann, R-Tenn., for hurting chances of reviving the stalled lock project.

"When former Congressman Zach Wamp and former Sen. Bill Frist secured federal investment to repair our existing lock and ultimately to begin the construction of a new lock, it began under the Clinton Administration," the younger Wamp said. "Unlike Congressman Fleischmann, they got things done through bi-partisan cooperation and so will I."

Wamp criticized Fleischmann for not meeting with President Obama when he came to Chattanooga last summer. Wamp said Fleischmann could have used the occasion to persuade the president to fund the new Chickamauga Lock instead of sending him a critical post card and news release.

Fleischmann is pushing to complete the half-finished new Chickamauga Lock through a new funding formula for the Corps of Engineers, but so far that has proved inadequate.

In the omnibus budget adopted for the current fiscal year in January, Congress directed the Corps for the first time to change the way it funds inland waterway projects to require the taxpayers to absorb 75 percent of the cost of the Olmsted lock and dam, up from the 50 percent formula used in the past. That freed up $81.5 million for other projects this year, but Chickamauga' replacement lock still fell behind available funding for the Corps' top two priorities -- the Olmsted lock and dam and a dam project on the Lower Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.

The next step, according to Fleischmann, is to keep that 75 percent funding formula for the Olmsted project in the new Water Resources Development Act being finalized in a Congressional conference committee.

"This year, thanks in large part to Congressman Fleischmann's leadership, real reform to the lock's funding mechanism is being implemented," said Tyler Threadgill, communications director for Rep. Fleischmann. "This is the first true change in the Inland Waterway's Trust Fund's history, which is an important step toward ensuring the future of the Chickamauga Lock."

To generate more money for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to match federal dollars, the barge industry is pushing for a fuel tax increase. U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield offered such a proposal two years ago, but Fleischmann did not sign on as a sponsor and has yet to commit to raising any barge fuel tax to generate more money for lock and dam projects. But Fleischmann also hasn't ruled out ever voting for such a tax increase.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is pushing to complete the Chickamauga Lock in the U.S. Senate, said he thinks the barge fuel tax rate should be increased, calling it "a user fee the industry wants." He says such an increase is essential to pay for improvements like the Chickamauga Lock.

Rather than raise the barge fuel tax, Obama administration budget planners have proposed having the industry pay for each barge that locks through one of the Corps of Engineers' dams.

"With nine locks on the Tennessee River, that could prove too expensive for many businesses," Jones said.

The Chickamauga Lock allows river barges and recreational boats to be raised or lowered 52 feet between Lake Chickamauga to Lake Nickajack. The lock beneath the Wilkes Thrasher bridge on Highway 153 opens up 318 navigable river miles above Chattanooga on the Tennessee River and its tributaries.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

about Dave Flessner...

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 ...

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