Funding future cloudy for Chickamauga Lock

The Knoxville News-Sentinel

March 28–Funding for the $755 million Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project has had an at-times shaky past and, with President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal coming in May, the project’s status is even more tenuous.

The lock, 7 miles north of Chattanooga, keeps 318 miles of the Tennessee River upstream — to its source in Knox County — navigable. A total of 903,678 tons of commodities passed through the lock in 2016. Chickamauga also let through 3,085 recreational craft that year.

Closure will mean cutting off that 318 miles to barge traffic from the rest of the Tennessee River.

The 77-year-old lock is failing.

“The existing lock is experiencing stability issues from alkali aggregate reactions (AAR), commonly referred to as ‘growing concrete,'” explained Adam Walker, Chickamauga Locks project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District. “The reaction causes the aggregate to physically expand and results in cracking throughout the structure.

“We are not able to predict when the existing lock will be permanently closed … but TVA, the owner of the lock and dam, has stated the lock would be closed immediately if a dam safety issue is discovered.”

The lock was closed for a brief time in October 2014 when a hairline fracture was discovered.

A project to replace the lock with a bigger, better version was begun in 2004. The plan is for six barges to be able to go through the new 110-by-600 foot lock. The present lock measures 60-feet-wide by 360-feet-long and can handle just one barge at a time.

“The current lock chamber is also incompatible with today’s towing equipment resulting in longer-than-normal tow-processing times,” Walker said in his emailed response to USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee questions.

A total of $182 million was spent between 2004 and 2012 mainly to ready the site, including the building of a coffer dam. The project received no funding from 2012 to 2014 and was stopped.

It was rebooted in 2014, getting $3 million in fiscal 2015 and $29.9 million in fiscal 2016 from the Corps of Engineers’ Work Plan. It is scheduled to be completed in late 2024. Approximately $215 million has been allocated to date, leaving approximately $540 million remaining to complete the effort.

Chickamauga Lock was not included in then-President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget, which was never approved by Congress. The Corps had stated a need for $37 million in fiscal 2017 to “efficiently continue work,” Walker said. The project is still getting money through a Continuing Resolution based on the previously approved budget. The present Continuing Resolution period expires April 28.

Work is continuing with a focus on removing the foundation rock to construct the new lock chamber under a contract awarded in September 2016.

The project’s future depends in large part on Trump’s plans. He had originally included Chickamauga Lock among his 100 infrastructure projects that would be funded. But, his recently released preliminary, so-called skinny budget proposal, included a 16.3 percent cut in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann has been a Chickamauga Lock champion. He and Sen. Lamar Alexander worked hard to restart the project back in 2014.

“My commitment to the Chickamauga Lock project is steadfast,” Fleischmann said. “I will persist in fighting for continued funding on this important project, ensuring the existing lock can be repaired and that the new lock is very high on the priority list.”

In his emailed response, Fleischmann pointed out the president does not get the final say on funding matters.

“I appreciate President Trump’s proposed budget, which includes policies intended to shrink our government while growing our economy. However, Congress ultimately has the responsibility under the constitution to exercise the power of the purse. I will work with my colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to ensure there is a responsible budget for our nation.”

According to the Corps’ Walker, Chickamauga Lock is the fourth-highest priority among its Inland Navigation construction projects, behind Olmsted Lock and Dam (Louisville District), Lower Monongahela Projects (Pittsburgh District) and Kentucky Lock Addition Project (Nashville District).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.