Chickamauga Lock gets $37 million for additional work this year

Chattanooga Times/Free Press

May 24–Construction of the new Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga is getting its biggest boost since the federal stimulus program was adopted in the midst of the Great Recession eight years ago.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the energy and water appropriations panel that oversees funding for America’s waterways projects, announced today that the Army Corps of Engineers’ Work Plan for Fiscal Year 2017 includes $37 million more to continue work this year on the new and bigger lock being built beneath the Chickamauga Lock in Hixson.

The funding level for the lock project is nearly double what the Corps first projected when Congress last month adopted the omnibus spending plan for the balance of fiscal 2017 and marks the third year of sustained funding for the new lock since it stalled because of a lack of money in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund in 2015.

“This funding will continue construction of Chickamauga Lock for the third consecutive year, which is good news for not only Chattanooga, but for all of East Tennessee because it will help keep 150,000 trucks off I-75 and keep the cost of shipping goods low for and manufacturers across the state,” Alexander said in a statement today. “This year, members of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittees worked hard to ensure we could keep federal lock and dam projects funded, and I’m glad we accomplished that goal.”

The new lock will replace the aging, smaller lock at Chickamauga Dam, which was built in 1940 but suffers from problems with “concrete growth” in its rock foundation that mandates aggressive maintenance to keep the lock operating. The bigger lock will be able to handle six barges at a time, compared with only a single barge that can now fit in the smaller and narrower lock through the dam.

The final version of the Fiscal year 2017 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill Congress adopted in April provided $6.038 billion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — a record funding level in a regular appropriations bill. The bill made full use of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund revenues for water infrastructure projects and is the biggest allocation for the Chickamauga Lock since the federal stimulus bill, adopted in 2009, allocated $52 million for the new lock construction.

Future funding to finish the $755 million Chickamauga Lock replacement still faces more challenges ahead, however.

The Trump budget plan unveiled Tuesday calls for increasing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ funding by $400 million over the previous administration’s request of $4.6 billion. But the $5 billion proposal from the White House is still 16 percent below the record high Corps budget provided in the fiscal 2017 Omnibus.

In the fiscal 2018 budget proposal by President Trump, the White House Office of Management and Budget proposes that the fuel tax on barge operators be raised again to help pay for new locks, dams and other inland waterway improvements. Specifically, Trump is proposing a new, 10-year, $1.037 billion user fee to be paid by commercial operators on the inland waterways to match the taxpayer-funded portion of the trust fund used to build new locks and dams.

“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 Corps of Engineers, which operates the TVA-built 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.

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.