Trump budget proposes higher barge fees to finish Chickamauga lock, other projects

Chattanooga Times/Free Press

May 24–Three years after the fuel tax on barge operators was raised by 9 cents a gallon to help pay for new locks, dams and other inland waterway improvements, President Trump is proposing that the barge industry pay even higher fees to pay for unfunded improvements, including the building of a new Chickamauga lock in Chattanooga.

The White House budget plan unveiled Tuesday recommends a new, 10-year, $1.037 billion user fee to be paid by commercial operators on the inland waterways. The proposal for the higher fees is equal to the current fuel tax, suggesting that the current 29-cents-per-gallon diesel tax may have to double to pay for inland improvements under the Trump spending plan.

“The central financing challenge now facing the inland waterways program is that the current diesel fuel tax [which Congress increased from 20 cents per gallon to 29 cents per gallon in 2014] will not generate enough revenue to support the user-financed 50 percent share of capital investments that will likely be needed over the next 10 to 15 years,” the Office of Management and Budget said in its fiscal 2018 spending proposal. “The budget proposes to increase revenue to support additional work on the inland waterways through a new user fee.”

The current Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is equally funded with user fees from barge operators and general federal funds paid by taxpayers, has a balance of less than $60 million. But there are still billions of dollars of unfunded projects, including more than $500 million needed to finish construction of the new and bigger lock at the Chickamauga Dam.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the TVA-built dam and lock in Chattanooga, has already spent more than $180 million on the design of a new lock and the building of a coffer dam below the Chickamauga Dam to house the new lock. But delays in construction have nearly tripled the price of the lock since its initial design and the Corps continues to spend extra funds on aggressive maintenance to preserve the existing, smaller Chickamauga lock, which was built in 1940 and suffers from “concrete growth” in its rock foundation.

President Obama previously proposed a 10-year, $1.1 billion user fee in each of his budgets, but those proposals were rejected each year by Congress. The Waterways Council, the industry group that represents the barge industry, “remains opposed to this age-old users fee proposal that has been floated by several past Administrations,” council spokeswoman Debra Calhoun said Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who has made the new Chickamauga lock one of his top legislative priorities and jokingly calls it “the Chuck lock,” vowed to work to get extra federal funding to finish construction of the new lock in Chattanooga.

“I believe our inland waterways are critical to our nation’s competitiveness,” Fleischmann said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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.