Sen. Lamar Alexander urges change in funding formula for locks

Sen. Lamar Alexander urges change in funding formula for locks

March 29th, 2012 by Staff Report in Business Around the Region

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., listens during a May meeting at the Senate Print Gallery in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.., suggested Wednesday that taxpayers absorb a bigger share of the $693 million expense of building a new lock at the Chickamauga Dam.

During a Senate hearing on the fiscal 2013 Army Corps of Engineers budget, Alexander called for a change in the funding of lock projects, including the Olmsted Lock on the Ohio River that has been absorbing most of the money in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

The Olmsted project is expected to absorb most of the trust fund for nearly a decade, limiting repairs and new construction at other locks and dams, including the crumbling Chickamauga Lock.

"It's absolutely inconceivable that Chickamauga Lock could close because of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund," Alexander said.

Lock projects now are equally funded by taxpayers and barge users, who pay a 20-cents-per-gallon fuel tax into the trust fund for such projects. Alexander suggested federal funding for some of the lock projects needs to be increased to ensure that locks and dams are upgraded to maintain needed river commerce.

"The Inland Waterways Trust Fund doesn't collect enough money, so projects like Chickamauga Lock are on indefinite hold and not getting the attention they need," Alexander said. "I would like to strongly suggest -- and the chairman and I have been working on this with other members of the subcommittee -- that we step back and look at these two trust funds ... and think about our country and the competitive position we want to be in, in the future."

Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary for the Army in charge of the corps' civil works projects, said the Chickamauga Lock is a lower priority than completing the $3 billion upgrade of the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River. The 50-50 funding formula isn't generating enough money from barge taxes to support more projects, she said.

She said Congress would have to consider changing that formula to restore work on the new Chickamauga Lock next year.

Alexander noted that "we are in a position to do that."

"With the Panama Canal being deepened, our ports need to be deepened, we need locks and dams that are safe in the inland waterways, and we ought to be able to do something about that," he said.