published Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Corps funding squeeze could jam Chickamauga Lock renovations


by Herman Wang

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has signaled he will cut the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget by more than half next year, putting a potential squeeze on funding for Chickamauga Lock renovations.

The president’s fiscal 2010 proposed budget, released this month, shows the corps’ funding dropping 54 percent from fiscal 2009 levels to $5.1 billion, partly due to an impending shortfall of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

But Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., noted the recently passed economic stimulus bill contains $4.6 billion for the corps.

“This is a challenge,” he said. “The trust fund has a squeeze, and the question is, how much of the different projects can the Corps fund and still meet the match out of the trust fund?”

Army Corps of Engineers projects require a 50/50 match from the federal government and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which was created in 1978. But with several projects, including construction of the Olmstead Locks in Kentucky, running over budget, the trust fund is almost tapped out.

The trust fund collected $87.6 million in fiscal 2008 through a 20-cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel used by barge tow boats. It spent $171 million last year, leaving about $131 million in the fund’s balance, according to the Inland Waterways Users Board, which advises the corps.

The 68-year-old Chickamauga Lock, in the midst of an eight-year, $349 million rehabilitation, is due $50 million in 2010, and Rep. Wamp, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he is talking with Corps officials to keep that funding in the budget.

“It’s something that (Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee) and I are working on,” he said. “The Congress has to step up and do its part, but we’ve also got the users engaged, because the barge operators pay a user fee. That is potentially part of the solution.”

A spokesman for Sen. Alexander said the senator still is reviewing the budget.

Rep. Wamp said funding for the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., also may be endangered, given the White House’s proposed cuts to the defense budget and Mr. Obama’s lukewarm support for the nuclear weapons program.

Overall, the president’s $3.6 trillion budget proposal calls for major investments in health care, energy and education, paid for by reducing war costs, allowing tax cuts for high-wage earners to expire and closing corporate loopholes.

Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers say they will wait until the final numbers are released before fully commenting on them, but many Republicans are balking at what they see as massive tax increases to pay for Mr. Obama’s pet projects, including expanding health care coverage.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the budget proposal contains “a major sleight of hand” in claiming that it will not raise taxes on 95 percent of Americans, while instituting a cap-and-trade system on greenhouse gas emissions that he called a “climate tax.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the cap-and-trade system, in which companies are limited on the amount of greenhouse gases they can produce but can buy and sell emissions credits on the open market, will put burdens on corporations that will translate into higher costs for Americans.

Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., said he is worried about the amount of deficit spending the budget contains.

“I have deep concern that, in the wake of the economic recovery package, a Wall Street bailout that I opposed and other major spending initiatives, this budget may spend more than our nation can afford,” he said.

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