NASHVILLE - Tennessee River users are defending U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander as critics attack his move to authorize money to complete a major Ohio River dam project, saying it plays into a wider effort to restart stalled work on the Chickamauga Dam lock in Chattanooga.
"We appreciate Sen. Alexander sticking his neck out [and] taking the heat," said Cline Jones, executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association, which includes barge and tow boat operators among its members. "It's not just for us in our region but the nation."
Jones said Tuesday cost overruns on the Holmstead Locks and Dam Dam replacement project is "sucking up all the money." As a result, he added, "there's no money for those other projects."
"What they did in the continuing resolution that's got everybody so up in arm is authorize money to complete that thing," Jones said.
Alexander, R-Tenn., has come under fire from Tea Party groups and his 2014 GOP primary challenger, state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, for including a provision in last week's funding resolution that ended a two-week partial federal government shutdown.
The budget agreement adopted by Congress increased the funding authorization for the Olmsted project from $1.7 billion to $2.9 billion to help finish the Army Corps of Engineers' project. The project in 1986 was estimated to cost $775 million. But since it was authorized in 1988, costs have ballooned due to inflation and delays in completing the new lock and dams.
Alexander, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee, said he and committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., agreed to include the higher authorization in the temporary budget agreement to ensure the Olmsted project didn't shut down during the budget standoff.
Alexander said $160 million would "be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included."
Dam and lock projects are currently funded by taxpayers and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which each fund half. The trust's funding comes from fuel taxes paid by commercial operators.
Jones said the big issue now is funding changes envisioned in a major water projects bill, previously passed by the Senate, which is scheduled to be on the House floor today.
The Senate's Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) calls for 100 percent of the Olmsted project to be funded by the federal government instead of 50 percent.
Jones said that will move the No. 2 dam project on the Corps of Engineers' list - the Lower Monongahela lock and dam replacement project in Pennsylvania - to the top and receive more funding. That should ultimately benefit the No. 3 project, Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River, he said.
And No. 4 on the Army Corps list is the lock replacement for the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga.
The House bill differs in that the federal share on Olmsted would rise from 50 percent to 75 percent with trust funds still funding 25 percent. Jones said the Tennessee River Valley Association favors the Senate bill.
Still, he said, "we're for any relief in the cost share for Olmsted to free up money for other projects."
When the continuing resolution on ending the partial government shutdown came to the House floor earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., voted no.
But when the Water Resources Reform and Development Act hits the floor today, the Chattanooga congressman will "definitely" be voting yes, spokesman Tyler Threadgill said.
The stakes for East Tennessee are high on completion of the Chickamauga Lock project. If the crumbling lock is closed, it will shut down a 318-mile stretch of the Tennessee River upstream of Chattanooga.
Lou Patten, a former Republican state senator from Cleveland, said getting the now-stalled lock replacement project done is vital.
The Olmsted project "has been 'sucking' all the available funds from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund for many years, which has taken away any available funds to complete the Chickamauga Lock," he said.
"If the work on the Chickamauga Lock is not restarted soon, all the money previously spent toward a new lock will be wasted," Patten fretted. "If the Chickamauga Lock is not replaced and is forced to close, the economic impact throughout our region will be devastating."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or at 615-255-0550.