WASHINGTON -- Advocates for the shipping industry argued passionately Monday for a conservative House to take up a Senate-passed water bill that could mean new funding measures for the stalled lock project at Chickamauga Dam.
But the advocates treaded carefully, showing flashes of optimism as they lamented House Republicans wary of supporting legislation that could be construed as a tax increase for locks, dams or anything else.
Officials with the Arlington, Va.-based Waterways Council held its wide-ranging annual briefing Monday at the National Press Club, stressing the potential for job creation and mentioning the Chattanooga area several times in an effort to call attention to the nation's aquatic infrastructure.
"There are only good things ahead for Chickamauga," said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of Waterways Council.
The group represents 175 barge companies, ports, economic development organizations, agriculture groups and others within the transportation industry. Council President and CEO Michael Toohey, a former assistant transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, argued that action must be taken soon to preserve the nation's fragile economic recovery.
At 73 years old, the existing lock at Chickamauga Dam is experiencing concrete growth and other forms of deterioration. Lawmakers and engineering experts warn of shutdowns and increased highway traffic within five years. But construction of a new lock stopped when money ran out several years ago.
Chickamauga is one of 56 locks between 70 and 79 years old, Toohey said. Most locks are given 50 years before replacements are recommended.
Toohey also argued for more lock funding from an environmental point of view, saying a 15-barge tow equals 216 rail cars or 1,050 large trucks on the interstate.
On May 15, the Senate voted 83-14 to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act. The bill would shift money from an unfinished Ohio River project that soaks up 90 percent of the available lock-and-dam funding to lower-priority projects such as Chickamauga.
On Monday, Toohey said that shift would free up $800 million for projects such as Chickamauga, but it's unclear exactly how much of that would flow to the Tennessee Valley.
Either way, that step doesn't solve everything, labor and agriculture representatives said at Monday's roundtable. Many said the project-bankrolling Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which comes from barge fuel tax revenue paid by industry stakeholders, needs more money.
Toohey's group recommends a 6- to 9-cent tax increase from the 20-cents-per-gallon-of-fuel currently on the books. Other industry insiders, including the Nashville-based Ingram Barge Co., have said they don't mind paying the tax.
But House Republicans haven't said whether they could support something that opponents could later paint as a tax increase -- requested by a given industry or not. U.S. Rep. Fleischmann, R-Tenn., has said Congress should look at ways to cut spending "before we can ever look at new revenue."
Toohey said that even if the House doesn't adopt a barge fuel tax increase, a conference between House and Senate negotiators could yield a deal. He added that if nothing changes, the new Chickamauga lock won't be completed until 2051.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., hopes to have a bill introduced by the end of summer, his spokesman said Monday.
Others doubted that timeline, given all the attention on immigration, domestic surveillance and the failed farm bill.
"I can't give you a guarantee on any of this," Toohey said. "It is Congress."
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.