published Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Congress tries to unlock river in Chattanooga, revive Chickamauga Lock work

Work on the Chickamauga Lock is stagnant in this view below the Chickamauga Dam.
Work on the Chickamauga Lock is stagnant in this view below the Chickamauga Dam.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Congressional backers of a new lock at the Chickamauga Dam hope they have given the Army Corps of Engineers the keys to unlock the stalled $698 million project.

Led by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, the entire Tennessee delegation in the U.S. House and two neighboring Republican Congressmen in Alabama sent a letter Wednesday to the Corps of Engineers urging that work resume on the Chickamauga Lock. After rewriting the funding formula for the Corps' most expensive ongoing project, Congressional representatives said money should be available for the first time in years to work on projects like the Chickamauga Lock.

The letter penned by Fleischmann doesn't mention the Chickamauga Lock by name since such earmarks for designated projects in a member's district are no longer allowed. But Fleischmann and 11 other Democrats and Republicans have signed on to a request that the Corps give top priority with newly available funds for "projects where a replacement is needed" for an older, out-of-date lock and to projects that "provide critical support to our national security by transporting classified material."

The new Chickamauga Lock, which would replace the crumbling existing lock built in 1940, is a passageway for barges to access the upper third of the Tennessee River that includes the Department of Energy research and weapons plants in Oak Ridge.

"In particular, there is a demonstrated need for funding for projects where a replacement is needed due to significant wear and tear on the current infrastructure," Fleischmann and others said in a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, an assistant secretary of Army for Civil Works.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which took over the TVA-built lock in the 1990s, spent $186 million over the past decade to reroute roads, install a coffer dam and prepare walls and gates for a new and bigger replacement lock in Chattanooga. But until a recent budget was approved by Congress, funding dried up in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to sustain work at the Chickamauga Lock, largely due to cost overruns at other, higher priority projects on the Ohio River.

The Army Corps estimates it will need at least another $507 million to finish building the new lock at the Chickamauga Dam. But the costs for fixing the higher priority Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River are eating up all of the available money.

To restart other lock and dam projects, Congress agreed to boost the share of taxpayer funds going toward the $3 billion Olmsted project from 50 percent of the costs to 75 percent of the total expense. The other share of the construction expenses is paid from fuel taxes collected on barge operators which use the locks.

By boosting the share of taxpayer funds going toward Olmsted, barge fuel tax revenues are stretched farther. When combined with matching federal funds, an extra $81.5 million will be available this year for lock and dam projects beyond replacing the Olmsted dam and lock.

The Corps' current priority list for such funds lists Olmsted No. 1, Monongahela River lock and dam near Pittsburg No. 2, and the Chickamauga Lock replacement No. 3.

In addition to the new funding formula that was adopted as part of the recent budget compromise, additional new funding could come for lock and dam projects in future years through a new Water and Resource Development Act, which is now being debated in a conference committee between representatives for both the House and the Senate.

"There's a lot of money that has already been spent on initial work for the new Chickamauga Lock that is just sort of sitting there in the river, and there is a lot more needed to finish this project," said Cline Jones, executive director for the Tennessee River Valley Association, which represents the barge industry. "This is a critical lock that needs to be replaced and hopefully this widespread support by so many in Congress will help ensure that work resumes soon."

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

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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