WASHINGTON - The House lawmaker who controls the fate of American infrastructure says he's "looking very closely" at a Senate-passed bill that could jump-start the stalled lock at Chickamauga Dam.
"It makes sense to give it a hard look," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week before a congressional baseball game for charity at Nationals Park.
A pledge to mull a proposal isn't the same as endorsing one. But the Pennsylvania Republican said the Tennessee River will be on his mind as his committee shapes funding measures for locks, dams, levees and other public works projects.
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. But construction of a new lock stopped when money ran out several years ago.
On May 15, the Senate reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act. The bill would shift money from an unfinished Ohio River project that soaks up much of the available funding to lower-priority projects like Chickamauga.
But the measure -- inspired by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. -- won't go anywhere if the House doesn't include some version of it in its own water resources bill. Shuster says his committee "hopefully" will introduce the bill before the monthlong August recess.
As chairman, Shuster possesses broad influence over how lock projects are ranked. Incidentally, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, whose 3rd District includes the lock, sits on the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on energy and water.
"Shuster needs Fleischmann to make sure projects actually get funded," said Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer. "There can be a symbiotic relationship between the transportation chairman and members of Appropriations."
Fleischmann and Shuster are closer than the average committee chairman and rank-and-file member. As a freshman, Fleischmann served on Shuster's committee before moving in January to the Appropriations spot.
Last year, Shuster joined Fleischmann in Chattanooga for a dual purpose: an evening fundraiser for Fleischmann's re-election effort and to visit the lock the next morning. They were teammates on the Republican baseball team, which practiced regularly for two months.
"Chuck weighs in heavily in talks with me, in talks with other members about the lock," Shuster said. "That's why he's going to be successful."
A Fleischmann spokesman said nothing had progressed since the Senate passed its version of the Water Resources Development Act. In a May interview, the congressman said Shuster hadn't yet pledged his full support in private conversations.
"They obviously have a good relationship, and it sounds like Fleischmann was a reliable committee member for Shuster," Oppenheimer said. "Now the chair has a reason to please Fleischmann."
Obstacles still remain. House conservatives don't want to support what could be construed as a bloated spending bill, and they're unlikely to support anything that adds tax revenue to government projects.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.