There is general agreement now that the Chickamauga lock on the Tennessee River here is deteriorating at a rapidly increasing rate, that it requires frequent repairs to keep it operating and that the need for a replacement is pressing. There is highly partisan debate about to pay for repairs, upkeep and a replacement. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, said Wednesday that he has a bipartisan plan that would expedite resumption of currently stalled construction. Given current circumstances, his proposal is reasonable, though it faces considerable and unnecessarily partisan opposition in Congress.
The Tennesseean, along with fellow Republic Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., intends to introduce the American Waterworks Act sometime after the November elections. The bill would directly address funding and other shortfalls in the nation's port and waterway infrastructure. The proposal also calls for a 50 percent tax increase on barge operators, a suggestion that has support from many in the barge industry, a fact that should attract attention. The operators normally are united in opposition to additional taxes and any government interference in their business.
Alexander's bill would change the current funding formula that underwrites construction of waterway infrastructure like dams and waterways. As it is now, funds generated by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund are relatively limited and are directed at specific projects. Other pressing infrastructure needs like the lock at the Chickamauga Dam are assigned numbers on a list of projects. It can be years before a project — no matter how crucial to a community or region -- reaches the top of the list.
Alexander wants to circumvent that bottleneck, and his bill likely would do that. It would, he says, free up millions of dollars by ending such specificity. Currently, most of the trust fund appropriation is going to build a project in Kentucky that is more than $1 billion over budget. The project is a pet of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and he is certain to oppose anything that would jeopardize it. Such parochialism is not uncommon in affairs of this type, but it does hinder sound governance.
The proposed act would help depoliticize vital funding for crucial waterway infrastructure. It is a somewhat short-term solution to the long-term problem of refurbishing vital infrastructure across the country, but it is viable. The only alternative is comprehensive and equitable tax reform — unlikely anytime soon given the partisan chasm in Congress.
Alexander's bill, though, faces an uphill battle. There's McConnell's self-serving position to contend with, of course, but there's also a anti-tax faction in Congress that opposes anything that smacks of an increase in taxes — even one that is generally accepted by those who will pay it. Republican 3rd District Rep. Chuck Flesichmann, regrettably, is in that group.
He's on record as saying that replacement of the lock is an economic necessity for the district. He's also publicly pledged to get the money for repairs and to restart stalled construction of the replacement. He's done nothing to fulfill that pledge, preferring instead to remind constituents that obtaining such funding would violate his signature on Grover Norquist's destructive anti-tax pledge. What nonsense.
Alexander, hardly a free-spender, offers a way to pay for a project vital to the future of the 3rd District, Tennessee and the region. His plan, incidentally, generally matches in many particulars one espoused by Dr. Mary Headrick, Fleischmann's articulate, clear-thinking Democratic opponent. The voices of Alexander, Headrick and others in both parties who understandably advocate for needed repairs and a replacement lock at Chickamauga and offer a method to help pay for both — not Fleischmann's insistent negativity — should prevail.
Indeed, Fleischmann's policy on the Chickamauga lock is another indication of his broad failure as a congressman. His narrow-minded views on taxes, his refusal to invest in national infrastructure and his failure to comprehend that deficit reduction requires both cuts in spending and revenue increases are counterproductive and contrary to the needs of his district, of Tennessee and the nation as a whole.
Alexander's approach to funding the new Chickamauga lock and other waterway infrastructure across the United States is not the perfect solution to a knotty problem, but it does have merit. It would, if approved, restart stalled projects and allow the nation to begin restoration of infrastructure that, regrettably, has been allowed to deteriorate to dangerous levels. The bill deserves approval.