Story updated at 2:03 p.m. with additional information and background on the Chickcmauga Lock project.
In a surprise move by the Army Corps of Engineers, work is already underway to secure a contract that will allow workers to begin work on the new Chickamauga lock.
The money will come from a surplus of $3 million in the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, allowing construction to begin in earnest this year instead of in 2016 as previously planned. The $3 million will be used to place grout on cracks in the cofferdam, a temporary dam built in the water near the lock that creates a dry work environment so repairs can begin.
Originally, construction on the new Chickamauga lock was slated to be revived this fall, with startup work for the biggest construction project ever in Tennessee planned to continue next year under a spending bill endorsed Tuesday by a key Senate subcommittee.
But U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, have continually pushed the Army Corps to immediately provide the funds needed to get the work restarted.
"Since my first day in Congress, Chickamauga Lock has been a top priority, and today's announcement that construction will be restarted is a huge win not just for Chattanooga but for all of East Tennessee," said Fleischmann. "Senator Alexander and I have worked to reform the broken Inland Waterways Trust Fund and this funding is part of a string of success in fixing this broken system."
Alexander says the priority was the replace the Chickamauga Lock "before it fails."
"The funding will be used for prep work so that the Corps can begin replacing the lock, which is important not just to Chattanooga, but to all of East Tennessee because of the number of jobs affected," Alexander said. "If Chickamauga Lock were to fail it would throw 150,000 trucks on I-75 and increase the cost of shipping goods for Oak Ridge, Y-12, and manufacturers across the state."
The Army Corps was able to move up the construction start date to 2015 because the lock met key performance criteria, and needed immediate replacement, officials said.
The $3 million cash infusion is just a drop in the bucket compared to what it will take to finish the lock, but there's more cash in the pipeline.
A Senate panel drafting next year's budget for energy and water development projects unanimously endorsed a plan that provides $29 million to restart the stalled Chickamauga lock in Chattanooga, thanks to the lock's high position on the priority list.
The Corps has spent more than $180 million on the Chickamauga lock over the past decade to design and start work on a lock to replace the existing 65-year-old chamber. But funding for the new lock ran out three years ago when most of the money in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund was absorbed by the $3 billion repair and construction of the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River, which has a higher priority for completion than does the lock in Chattanooga.
The Corps estimates it will cost another $680 million and take about four to five years of construction to finish building the bigger lock at the Chickamauga Dam.
To revive stalled waterway projects and replenish the waterways trust fund, Congress approved a 9 cents-per-gallon fuel tax increase last year on barge operators and is moving to appropriate more money for the Corps' civil works projects this year. Inland waterway projects are funded equally between taxes on barge operators and federal tax payments collected from all taxpayers.
Stay with the Times Free press for more on this developing story.