U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann dodged obstacles both physical and political Tuesday while touring the crumbling Chickamauga lock.
As he did in two prior visits to the 72-year-old TVA structure, the freshman Republican vowed to secure money for the lock's much-needed repair and replacement but admitted uncertainty in pinpointing a timeframe.
Unlike his other fact-finding missions, however, Fleischmann wore a hard hat, black rubber boots and a solemn expression as he toured the lock's bowels for the first time. Negotiating a soupy mix of fish, tunnels, mud and algae, he investigated cracks in the concrete, outdated gates and other problems related to passing barges through TVA's phalanx of dams along the Tennessee River.
The 360-foot-by-60-foot behemoth is "an antiquated structure," Fleischmann said. "Time is not on the side of the existing lock."
Even the money that allows the lock's operators to maintain gates and instruments is at risk of drying up when federal fiscal 2013 begins Oct. 1. Funding for such "aggressive maintenance" at the old lock and money for the construction of a stalled replacement lock are zeroed out for the upcoming fiscal year, officials said.
"We'll still be able to do routine stuff like painting the hand railings, things like that," said Lt. Col. James DeLapp, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Nashville. "Not the aggressive maintenance, though."
Congressional inaction has led corps officials to believe it won't be long before the existing lock is in danger of collapse, an outcome that could be devastating in terms of safety and commerce.
"If this were ever to fail and close," DeLapp said, "everything would have to go to rail or the highway. If you put the amount of trucks it takes to move one barge's worth of stuff on the highway, there would be a lot more -- a ton more traffic."
Fleischmann was able to descend into the lock Tuesday because it was in the midst of a three-week "de-watering" process during which it's completely drained for structural repairs. The dewatering mirrored the lock's sweeping wear and tear; most locks can go five years without one, but the Chickamauga Lock's issues are such that its operators require the $2 million process every three years now.
Despite several visits and "hard, hard work" on the issue, Fleischmann's approach to the funding problem seemed unchanged Tuesday. Asked about solutions, he leaned heavily on a senior Tennessee colleague's plan.
Released in April, a plan by Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander would tweak the Inland Waterways Trust Fund formula -- which helps pay for work on dams and locks on U.S. rivers and lakes -- and free up an additional $72 million in funding for projects, including those on the Tennessee River. But Alexander's fix must survive the Senate appropriations process, which won't conclude until at least March because House and Senate leaders agreed to a six-month continuing resolution that freezes most agency spending at 2012 levels starting in October.
"Sen. Alexander considers the reconstruction of Chickamauga lock a priority, and he's working to find a long-term solution to the current funding problem," said Jim Jeffries, an Alexander spokesman.
On Tuesday, Fleischmann repeated his opposition to raising taxes to strengthen the trust fund despite the barge industry's willingness to raise the current 20-cents-per-gallon tax to 29 cents.
"I don't think it's necessary that we have a tax increase," said Fleischmann, who has signed conservative activist Grover Norquist's all-encompassing anti-tax-increase pledge.
Once dependable, the Inland Waterways Trust Fund has been depleted because of the recession and overbudgeting at higher-priority projects, such as the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River.
Maintenance work will stop Oct. 1 at the existing Chickamauga lock if no solution emerges, officials said.
The corps has spent $186 million so far on the replacement lock. Officials have estimated another $507 million is needed to finish building it. The existing lock serves as a top Tennessee River conduit, and officials have said 318 miles of upstream waters would be threatened by its closure.
Looking over the lock after the tour, DeLapp said the lock "still has several years" in which it can operate. But he said "everyone's keeping their fingers crossed" when it comes to long-term solutions.