U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said Wednesday he sees an opening this year to pass a House bill to fund the restart of work on Chickamauga lock's replacement.
The Tennessee Republican said House Speaker John Boehner told him last week that plans are to work on a bill this fall that would include reviving the lock project, which stalled about two years ago after money dried up.
"I think this year there is a tremendous opportunity," Fleischmann told a group of Chattanooga business people at a Chamber of Commerce meeting.
Fleischmann said it's vital the new lock project keep its place among the top ones in line for funding.
"The key is keeping the Chickamauga Lock in the priority system," he said. Currently, the new Chickamauga lock is third in line.
Fleischmann said a Senate bill passed earlier this year is a key action. He said that bill removed a Kentucky lock project that's currently taking up 90 percent of such funding along with others valued at $100 million or less.
The congressman said that if the Olmsted Lock on the Ohio River is removed from limited budget available through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, that would move Chickamauga up to No. 2 on the list, and there would be enough money to start up of the Tennessee River project again. He said it's key to prioritize the lock in the legislation because, if not, that could fall to President Barack Obama's administration.
"The worst thing to happen is to concede this authority to the administration," Fleischmann said.
Cline Jones, executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association, said while there may still be roadblocks in the House, he's hopeful that the lock project can move forward.
"That's a step in the right direction," said Jones, whose group includes commercial uses of the river.
Fleischmann said about $181 million had been spent on the new lock through fiscal year 2012. Fleischmann estimated it would take about $673 million to complete.
"I want to make sure the lock has the best opportunity to receive funding," he said, adding he's working with U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker along with other Tennessee congressmen on the project.
The existing Chickamauga lock, which TVA built and opened in 1940, is suffering from "concrete growth" due to a chemical reaction in its rock aggregate with the river water. The crumbling lock walls in the existing lock chamber could render the lock unsafe within the next decade.
Sen. Alexander said earlier this year that the existing lock's closure would put an extra 100,000 heavy trucks on Interstate-75 and hurt jobs in the region. In May, the Senate passed major provisions of Alexander's plan to ultimately replace Chickamauga Lock.
Fleischmann said that if the lock were to collapse, it would be "a disaster" economically for the area, though it wouldn't cause the river to physically flood Chattanooga.
He said that even if all the money for the lock project suddenly was available, work would still take six to seven more years. In the meantime, maintenance is needed on the existing lock, the congressman said.
Fleischmann said there are some dollars available for maintenance, but more is needed.
He said the president has the authority to put more funds toward the old lock, but has not so far.
"I'll continue to work toward that goal," Fleischmann said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.