Raising the diesel fuel tax on barges that ply America's inland waterways could more than double the money available for lock and dam replacements and speed completion of the stalled Chickamauga lock replacement in Chattanooga, according to the head of civil works programs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But even with an extra fuel tax being discussed in Congress -- or a potential user fee for locks proposed by President Obama -- U.S. Assistant Secretary Jo Ellen Darcy said there is no guarantee that work could resume in fiscal 2015 on the stalled lock project at the Chickamauga Dam.
Darcy told a Senate panel this week that a higher fuel tax or user fee "would increase the chances" for the restart of the Chickamauga lock, which has been stalled for the past three years because other higher priority lock projects have absorbed available funds. Darcy told U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the ranking Republican on the Senate energy and water subcommittee, that she "shares the same goal" of Alexander to finish the half-built Chickamauga lock as soon as possible.
"If you increase the tax, that would significantly increase the amount coming in, but it is that match between what's in the trust fund and the treasury that would ultimately need to be reconciled in order to pay for any increase in the Chick lock or to restart Chick," she said.
Lock and dam projects on America's waterways are jointly funded by the federal treasury with taxpayer funds and the barge industry through fuel tax collections into the Inland Waterway Users Fund. Because fuel tax revenues have lagged and construction costs have risen over the past six years, the Corps has only been able to fund the $3 billion lock and dam project at the Olmsted Dam on the Ohio River.
The Chickamauga lock replacement, which is projected to cost $675 million, is behind other Corps' priority projects at the Olmsted Dam in Ohio, the Lower Monongehela Lock in Pennsylvania and the Kentucky Lock in Kentucky.
But Alexander said changes in the Corps funding formula this year should help move more projects along and he urged the Corps to work on multiple projects at the same time, not just complete Olmsted first.
Tennessee's senior senator also said he is willing to raise the fuel tax on tugboats, as the barge industry as requested, to help fund needed lock and dam projects.
"We've got the barge owners asking to pay (an extra 6 to 8 cents per gallon tax), so that they could get through the lock more rapidly," Alexander said during a Senate hearing Wednesday. "It doesn't affect any of the fisherman except if you've got a little boat, right now you're waiting. If the big boats pay more to make it easier to get through the lock, the little boat get though faster without paying any more. So I hope the administration would work with us to increase the fee."
The Obama administration this year proposed implementing a user fee at locks to generate an extra $100 million a year, but Alexander said a higher fuel tax could accomplish that goal without punishing small boats going through inland locks.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Chattanooga Republican who is working to get funding for the Chickamauga lock through the more conservative House of Representative, backed a change in the funding formula this year to cut the share of funds going to the Olmsted Lock from the barge-funded trust fund from 50 percent of the project to only 25 percent. That freed up more money for other lock projects, although not enough to fund work at the Chickamauga lock.
Fleischmann has not backed a higher fuel tax, however. But he hasn't ruled out raising the tax if it funds the Chickamauga lock replacement.
In a statement Thursday, Fleischmann said Congress "made a tremendous step toward ensuring the future of the Chickamauga lock" by changing the funding formula this year.
"Our next step must be to get the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which has passed the House and Senate, out of conference committee and signed into law," Fleischmann said. "Sen. Alexander and I have worked diligently to get these bills passed and will continue to work for real results that will allow the Chickamauga lock to advance."
But even with such a change, more money will likely be needed in in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to restart the Chickamauga lock within the next several years before the crumbling existing lock becomes inoperable. Built in 1940, the current smaller lock suffers from "concrete growth" and needs continual maintenance to avoid problems with lock gates and walls.
Fleischmann's Republican opponent, Weston Wamp, said the Chattanooga congressman should do more to get funding for the new lock.
"Thank goodness Sen. Alexander is leading on this issue or nothing at all would be happening to revive the Chickamauga lock construction or even the maintenance and repair funding for the current lock," Wamp said. "Even though commercial barge operators have asked to increase their fees to keep the river open to commerce and navigation, our Congressman Chuck Fleischmann has refused to allow them to fix the problem."
Wamp said "close minded Congressmen have refused to fix the problem and insist on labeling the user fee as a tax increase.
"It is much more like a toll road than a tax increase." Wamp said. "Amazingly, the barge owners want to pay for the improvements and Congressman Fleischmann has said "no."
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.