Sen. Lamar Alexander backs taxes for Chickamauga Lock (with video)

Sen. Lamar Alexander backs taxes for Chickamauga Lock (with video)

October 25th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., holds a briefing with Debra Colbert, senior vice president of Waterways Council Inc. in Arlington, Va., about the Chickamauga Lock replacement project at the Chickamauga Lock and Dam on Wednesday. Because of structural safety concerns, the existing lock, completed in 1940, must be replaced.

Photo by Allison Love /Times Free Press.

A few hurdles stand between U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and his latest legislative attempt to resume construction at Chickamauga Lock.

The biggest may be elbowing the Senate minority leader and convincing fellow Republicans - including U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann - to raise taxes.

At a news conference Wednesday atop the 72-year-old lock, Tennessee's 72-year-old senior senator promoted a new-lock financing plan but declined to name the "bipartisan group of senators" behind it. The proposal calls for a 50 percent tax increase on barge operators and takes on a long-entrenched funding mechanism.

"I think you're looking, in the best possible situation, at five, six, seven years" before the new lock is completed, Alexander said of a $698 million project Congress authorized in 2003.

Next to the old lock, construction on the new lock is only 27 percent complete because the money ran out. New lock construction projects are equally bankrolled by Treasury funds and taxes paid by barge operators into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

But Chattanooga's biggest infrastructure problem is fourth on the federal lock-and-dam priority list, and a project in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's Kentucky home consumes about 90 percent of the trust fund.

"That's the big hang-up," said Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer. "Will McConnell give in here? My sense is, I suspect not."

Still, Alexander plans to try with the American Waterworks Act, which he said he'll introduce with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sometime after the November election -- a short time frame for an urgent situation.

With no "aggressive maintenance" money appropriated in President Barack Obama's budget, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to sound the alarm.

"If not replaced," a corps document reads, "the existing lock will eventually be closed due to safety concerns related to structural stability."

Alexander said the Waterworks Act would "supplant" his earlier efforts to tweak the lock's funding formula. The bill would end the requirement that the Olmsted Lock and Dam project in Kentucky be funded by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. That would free up about $150 million a year for lower-priority projects, including Chickamauga Lock.

Authorized by Congress in 1988 and more than $1 billion over budget, the Olmsted project should be "completely out" of trust fund consideration, Alexander said Wednesday. A McConnell spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Alexander's bill also would increase the barge fuel tax from 20 cents per gallon to 29 cents to refill the trust fund. The former Tennessee governor emphasized that the tax increase would apply only to commercial barge operators, not recreational boaters, who travel the lock for free.

Many in the barge industry support the proposal, but numerous Republicans, including Fleischmann, are opposed to any tax increase. Fleischmann spokesman Alek Vey said Alexander's plan would be "an important part of the debate going forward," but declined to say whether his boss would favor upping the fuel tax.

Alexander, Fleischmann and Tennessee's seven other congressional Republicans have signed anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's pledge against raising taxes.

"This lock is not going to last forever," Alexander said. "If it closes, it would be devastating for jobs."

Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the shippers' lobbying firm Waterways Council, stood firm by Alexander. She said the senator's plan represents a fresh start.

Gazing at the deteriorating lock, she said, "It's certainly showing it's age like all of us are."

Dr. Mary Headrick, Fleischmann's Democratic opponent, said she's in favor of Alexander's overall plan but doubted the money truly would trickle down to Chickamauga Lock.

"There are two projects ahead of us," she said.