WASHINGTON — The federally administered Inland Waterways Trust Fund could be depleted completely by the end of the year, putting in jeopardy dam upgrades and renovations, including Chickamauga Lock.
The trust fund, overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, finances infrastructure construction and maintenance on the nation’s navigable rivers. Rising materials costs and a growing backlog of long-deferred repairs, however, have caused the fund’s balance to drop from $412.6 million in 2002 to an estimated $56.3 million this year.
“This is a Katrina-like issue on infrastructure that affects things like Chick Lock,” said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., whose district includes the dam. “Unfortunately, projects that are on time suffer under (the Corps of Engineers’) prioritization process, while other projects that go over budget and aren’t run well, that’s where more money goes.”
The 68-year-old Chickamauga Lock is in the fourth year of an eight-year, $349 million rehabilitation.
But because of the projected trust fund shortfall, President Bush’s proposed fiscal year 2009 budget allocates $42 million to the project, almost $4 million below what was scheduled.
The funding gap for the lock likely will have to be made up through the appropriations process through the use of Congressional earmarks.
Tom Craig, who handles appropriations for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged that an earmark to make up the lock’s funding gap will take money from other projects.
“We’re going to fix it through an earmark, but if we fund the $4 million for Chickamauga Lock, it’s going to have to come from somewhere else,” Mr. Craig said.
Sen. Alexander said he views the lock as a vital project.
The corps began building a replacement lock in 2005 after studies found it would be inoperable by 2010 without significant maintenance. In the current fiscal year, the corps is spending $35 million to install a coffer dam and foundations for a new, larger lock.
“I appreciate the priority that the corps has tried to put on the Chickamauga Lock, which is badly in need of repair and when finished will take 100,000 big trucks a year off (Interstate) 75 every day,” Sen. Alexander said at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing this past week. “That helps us with clean air, climate change, transportation costs and dependence on foreign oil.”
Rep. Wamp, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, also will advocate for project funding.
“I have to make sure that this priority of keeping the Tennessee River open and repairing Chick Lock goes forward,” he said. “We need to put all the money in this project that we can, regardless of the president’s request.”
Failure to complete the lock renovations could cost the Chattanooga region an annual economic impact of $5.7 million, according to Waterways Council Inc., a towing and barge industry group.
FUND INSOLVENCY LOOMS
The fix for the ailing Inland Waterways Trust Fund is even more difficult.
The Corps of Engineers operates 257 locks on more than 12,000 miles of inland waterways, but aging infrastructure is putting a massive strain on the trust fund, which is replenished through a 20-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel charged to commercial vessels.
In fiscal year 2007, the trust fund received about $90 million from fuel taxes, while $205 million was spent from the fund, according to the Inland Waterways Users Board, an advisory group to the corps.
The American Society of Chemical Engineers said nearly 50 percent of the locks are “functionally obsolete,” with that number rising to 80 percent by 2020. The corps estimated a cost of more than $125 billion to replace the locks on the waterway system.
Corps officials proposed legislation to eliminate the fuel tax and establish a barge lockage user fee. James Woodley, assistant Army secretary for civil works, warned Congress this week that without the user fee, the trust fund will run out of money by the end of the calendar year.
“The funding in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund ... will not be sufficient after fiscal year 2008 to support needed levels of investment in these waterways,” he testified.
The proposal is opposed by industry groups that say the fees would be an unfair burden to towboat operators, who move the same amount of cargo in one barge as 58 semi-trucks at one-tenth the cost.
“This plan for a barge lockage fee, according to budget documents, would be designed to double the taxes on the industry,” said R. Barry Palmer, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the corps a D- grade for management of navigable waterways in its annual report card on infrastructure.
The society noted that a few years ago, the entire Ohio River system temporarily was shut down because of infrastructure breakdowns.
Sen. Alexander said the corps should be more flexible in how it prioritizes projects and also revamp how it collects the fuel tax. Currently, barge companies self-report how much fuel they use, leading to potential under-reporting.
“We will do everything we can to make sure this fund stays solvent so we can continue to invest in our waterway system with important projects,” Sen. Alexander said.
Rep. Wamp said he is neutral on how the trust fund should be fixed.
“The funding into the trust fund is going to have to be amended in some form,” Rep. Wamp said. “The path of least resistance is the fuel tax and then probably the lockage fee. I’m not going to pick which way we go. I’m an ‘any of the above’ guy.”
* TVA built the original Chickamauga Lock in 1940.
* The replacement lock will be 110 feet by 600 feet, a significant increase from the existing 60 foot by 360 foot lock.
* The annual tonnage passing through the lock has ranged from 1.6 million tons to 2.7 million tons.
* The cargo that passes through the lock has origins or destinations in 17 states.
* The lock has an average locking time for two vessels of almost eight hours.
Source: Army Corps of Engineers