U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., says there's no way the Chickamauga Lock will get funding this fiscal year, and its fate for the next few years depends on whether a House or Senate version of a bill to reform its funding prevails.
Fleischmann met with a group of county and municipal officials Thursday for a roundtable. It was the second such meeting in two years.
"It doesn't look like for fiscal '14 that the Chickamauga lock will be funded," Fleischmann said. "This should be an issue that we as Americans should sit down and address -- the need for infrastructure."
Funding for the deteriorating lock -- and many others across the nation -- has been stalled since earmarks were banned in Congress, he said. Since then, funding has been directed solely by the Inland Waterways User Fund, a fund fueled by a 50/50 split of taxpayer dollars and barge industry fees.
The fund historically funnels half of the cash to the $3 billion Olmsted lock project on the Ohio River between Kentucky and Illinois. And none will come to Chattanooga soon, because two other locks -- the Lower Monongehela lock in Pennsylvania and the Kentucky lock in Kentucky -- are ahead of Chickamauga on the priority list.
Knowing that the Chickamauga lock is No. 4 on the list, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke wanted to know when the local lock would start to see activity. He's been reaching out to the Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to get the project restarted.
"Is there going to be complete funding for No. 2 before you start No. 3, or will the funding be divided?" Berke asked.
Fleischmann couldn't give an exact answer, because the fate of the funding structure is still in limbo.
A House version of a bill to restructure the waterway fund would reduce Olmsted's funding to 25 percent -- sending 75 percent to the next locks in line.
A Senate version would cut the costly Olmsted lock out, but language in that bill setting the priority list isn't as strong as the House version, Fleischmann said.
"But the prioritization in the House bill is still more important, because it has Chickamauga in an advantageous position," Fleischmann said.
The Senate version of the bill indicates it "shall take into consideration the 20-year capital investment strategy" -- the current list made April 13, 2010. In that case, Chickamauga Lock could get bumped up to No. 3 on the list.
The consideration clause is good, it's just not as concrete, he said.
Fleischmann says many issues -- including revenue streams for the Inland Waterways Fund -- are on hold until the funding mechanism is worked out.
Industry officials have said they would agree to a $.09 increase in user fees to speed lock construction, but the Ooltewah Republican said more money isn't the answer until Congress can decide how to spend what it's got.
"Until we fix the structure [of the fund] we are not going to look at any of the revenue," he said.
Otherwise, the only way the Chickamauga lock could raise in priority is if it totally failed. That would trigger emergency spending.
"We don't want a lock failure. That would be a disaster," Fleischmann said.
Mayors from Chattanooga, Soddy-Daisy, Lookout Mountain and Hamilton County attended the meeting, along with representatives from East Ridge, the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
And the group members had other, more local, issues on their minds, too.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond asked Fleischmann about helping local law enforcement get federal relief for housing people with mental health issues. UTC Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Brown and Mayor Berke voiced concern about addressing massive student debt.
Fleischmann called both problems critical issues, but said that until spending in Washington, D.C. gets under control, the best bet for local funding will be through grants.
"Until we get our federal spending under control ... It's going to squeeze our funding for cherished programs," he said. "We are ready, willing and able to help you get grants. That's where most of the funding is going to come."
However, Fleischmann did offer a hand to East Ridge City Manager Andrew Hyatt, who asked about greasing the wheels to get East Ridge federal aid for Chickamauga Creek flooding.
The Congressman said he would put Hyatt in touch with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to request federal aid.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com or at 423-757-6481.