Fresh ideas needed for Chickamauga Dam: A decade of promises yield few results

Fresh ideas needed for Chickamauga Dam: A decade of promises yield few results

April 6th, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

The towboat Bearcat pushes barges toward the lock at the Chickamauga Dam.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Another day, another promise to secure funds to replace the aging lock at the Tennessee Valley Authority-operated Chickamauga Dam.

Back in February, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced he will seek funds for the Chickamauga lock project through the American Waterworks Act.

While efforts to fix the lock are welcome news, the dismal success rate of prior drives to acquire such funds -- followed by our disappointment when results of those efforts fall flat -- is beginning to resemble a struggle of Sisyphean proportions.

The announcement is one of many proposals put forward by Alexander and other legislators -- past and present -- whose attempts to appropriate funds for the new lock have resulted in newspaper headlines, but little in the way of results.

The following is a 10-year sample of Times Free Press headlines that trace the lock-funding odyssey:

• Panel includes funds for Chickamauga Lock, Nov. 8, 2003

• Replacing Chickamauga Lock, Oct. 23, 2004

• No funding for new Chickamauga Lock in budget, Feb. 8, 2005

• Chickamauga Lock work begins; 2013 projected finish date, May 21, 2006

• Chickamauga Lock replacement moves ahead, Jan. 17, 2007

• Chattanooga: New lock takes shape at Chickamauga Dam, Aug. 11, 2008

• Lock funding reaches crisis, Wamp says, Oct. 2, 2009

• Lock work stalls, Sept. 30, 2010

• Alexander pushes for lock funding, April 17, 2011

• Fleischmann promises funds, Sept. 5, 2012

• Project locks up, Feb. 9, 2013

Although some initial work for the project has taken place, what has been completed so far is minimal when compared to the breadth of funding and work required to complete the stalled project.

According to a Feb. 9 Chattanooga Times Free Press report, barges have recently delivered precast concrete sections that will form the walls of the $693-million project. Unfortunately, we still need to pony up $510 million to complete the project.

The 10-year odyssey to earmark funds to replace the deteriorating concrete walls of the 73-year-old lock has been an arduous journey not only due to a stagnant economy, but also due to cost overruns and incompetence.

The beleaguered project has not been unnoticed by the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. This week, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., told Politico that efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to sustain the lock were unsatisfactory.

"I've seen it. I've been to the Chick Lock on the Tennessee River. Their version of duct tape is boring holes at different angles and putting steel rods in to keep it together," Shuster said. "It's a serious problem."

Construction of the TVA dam and lock began in 1936 and was completed, remarkably, in three years. Political leaders of the day worked together to provide the funds to harness the Tennessee River. Political leaders of our time, however, seem to have little interest in working together.

As a result, it's time for new solutions.

We must stop shrugging our shoulders as we convince ourselves that federal funds are the only sources for constructing the new lock. The time has come to develop bold, new solutions.

Such bold new ideas may consist of a combination of public and private investment, as well as increasing lock user fees and barge fuel taxes so the people who benefit from the lock pay their share.

Let's face it: Although our federal government is adept at dreaming up and establishing agencies such as TVA, it obviously has little skill or competence in maintaining efficient and modern facilities. It is difficult to imagine how a private company or corporation would allow such a valued asset to deteriorate. But now our outdated, crumbling lock -- an engineering marvel constructed by hardworking Americans three-quarters of a century ago -- is a not-so-shining example of our government's mismanagement and ineptitude.

And so the issues we face not only resemble the myth of Sisyphus, but also an ancient Greek play. What cannot yet be determined, however, is whether it's a tragedy or a comedy.