Barge fuel tax seen as fix for Chickamauga lock

photo Construction continues on the dewatered Chickamauga Lock to repair issues including binding hinges on the downstream main gates, spot welding cracks in metal hardware, gasket replacement, and other necessities to allow the waterway to continue operating safely.

Democratic congressional candidate Dr. Mary Headrick said this week she would support a barge fuel tax increase to finance repair and construction at Chickamauga lock.

"The Chickamauga lock should be replaced," she said in a statement. "Until replaced, it should be repaired and remain in operation. ... I favor increasing the marine diesel fuel per gallon tax, as favored by barge operators."

In doing so, the Maynardville, Tenn., Democrat and acute care physician defied her opponent, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who has rejected a barge tax increase from 20 cents to 29 cents per gallon of diesel fuel. But the freshman Republican has opposed tax increases of any kind, partially owing to a political pledge he signed.

Fleischmann's opposition has also put him at odds with members of the barge industry who have expressed a willingness to pay more taxes if it translates to consistent maintenance and quicker replacement. Funding has dried up on both fronts, and the lock continues to deteriorate as a chemical reaction weakens its bulky concrete frame. The structure allows barges to move through TVA's dam system toward 318 miles of upstream Tennessee River water.

The tax wedge between Fleischmann and Headrick represents a difference in philosophy in solving one of the 3rd Congressional District's biggest infrastructure problems. While Headrick has floated a tax increase, "very low-cost bond opportunities" and block grants to finance lock replacement needs, Fleischmann has focused on a single idea.

He's pushing allocation reform of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which finances half the nation's lock and dam projects. Fleischmann has said the fund's setup favors higher-priority projects on the Ohio River and that fresh taxes won't solve the "funding formula" problem.

"It's a revenue problem in terms of distribution," he said after a tour of the lock Tuesday. "We can certainly look at reforming the mechanism, but I don't think it's necessary that we have tax increases."

Fleischmann has signed conservative activist Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

"In the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, candidates and incumbents solemnly bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases," according to the website for Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform.

Also at the lock appearance, Fleischmann reiterated his support for Sen. Lamar Alexander's proposal that could alter the distribution system for the Ohio River's Olmsted Lock and Dam, which now absorbs about 90 percent of trust fund money. Both lawmakers have said that could favor Tennessee River projects.

Alexander's idea probably won't advance anytime soon since it must pass the Senate appropriations process, which could be delayed by a six-month continuing resolution agreed upon by House and Senate leaders.

The resolution freezes spending at 2012 levels, meaning the Inland Waterways Trust Fund formula would remain unchanged. There is no money in the fiscal 2013 federal budget for "aggressive maintenance" at the existing lock or new construction at the partially completed replacement. That fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

"If we do not receive additional funding in FY 2013, the construction project will be placed in a mothball status when the work currently under contract is completed," Headrick predicted.