Higher barge fuel tax passes House, could revive stalled repairs on Chickamauga Lock

photo Chickamauga Lock and Dam

Chattanooga's biggest unfinished construction project could be revived within the next couple of years with extra money from a fuel tax increase moving through the lame-duck Congress.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday night approved a tax bill that could resurrect work at the stalled Chickamauga lock on the Tennessee River by 2016. The measure was approved by a 404-17 vote in the House and is expected to win Senate approval within the next week.

The industry-backed measure will raise the per-gallon tax on diesel fuel for barges from 20 cents to 29 cents next April, generating nearly $40 million a year more money for inland waterway projects such as the $860 million replacement lock at the Chickamauga Dam.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that took over operating and maintaining the Chickamauga lock from the Tennessee Valley Authority two decades ago, spent more than $180 million starting work on a new and bigger lock before money ran out nearly three years ago.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., was reluctant in the past to back any tax increase and his campaign once criticized a GOP rival for supporting higher barge fuel taxes for the Chickamauga lock. But after helping to change the funding formula for inland waterway projects earlier this year, Fleischmann helped convince House leaders last month to include what he called a "fee increase" for the barge industry.

The barge fuel tax increase was attached to a popular bill to allow tax-free savings accounts for parents and grandparents of disabled people. The so-called ABLE Act has 74 sponsors in the U.S. Senate and 380 in the House, including Fleischmann.

During a speech on the House floor, Fleischmann said that earlier changes in the inland waterways funding formula, combined with the barge fuel tax increase in the new House bill, should help fix the problem of crumbling locks like the one at Chickamauga.

"I came to Congress to fix broken problems with commonsense solutions," the Chattanooga Republican said.

The measure is being pushed by the barge industry to help avoid potential closures at the Chickamauga lock and other aging dams and locks around the country. Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which has secured pledges from most members of Congress to oppose any tax increase, is not opposing the measure, industry leaders said.

"We have a vital and reliable system of inland waterways in this country, but if we don't make enough investments it it we won't have it because most of these projects were built during the Great Depression and many are falling apart," said Mike Toohey, president of the Waterways Council Inc., which represents most of the 300 barge operators that will pay the higher fuel tax.

photo Nashville District Commander Lt. Col. James A. DeLapp, left, and deputy for project management Mike WIlson explain to U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann what some of the crucial repairs that need to be completed are as existing lock project manager Doug Delong, right, listens in during a tour of the dewatered Chickamauga Lock during work in 2012.

Fleischmann acknowledged that it would be difficult to pass such a fuel tax increase on barges in a stand-alone bill.

"But by working to attach this to the right vehicle, that should help us get this needed measure passed," Fleischmann said.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he expects the Senate to go along with the House in approving the ABLE Act with the barge fuel increase within the next week.

How much money Chickamauga lock will receive depends upon how much funding is requested by the Corps of Engineers next year and the congressional appropriations process. But Alexander said the fee increase would enable the corps to resume construction as early as 2016.

"Replacing Chickamauga lock keeps good jobs flowing into Chattanooga and East Tennessee -- including at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, nuclear facilities and manufacturing plants -- makes it easier for recreational boaters to go through the lock at no cost, and keeps 150,000 trucks from clogging up I-75," Alexander said Wednesday night.

The congressional votes this week and next on the barge fuel increase cap a two-year effort by Alexander, Fleischmann and others to revamp how inland waterway projects are funded.

In the Water Resources Development Act approved this year, Congress agreed to provide 85 percent of the cost to finishing the $3.1 billion Olmsted lock and dam project on the Ohio River from taxpayer funds. Under the previous formula, taxpayers paid only half of the expense of that project, matched with barge fuel tax collections, so there wasn't enough money in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for other projects like the Chickamauga lock.

Congress also told the corps of Engineers to finish existing projects before tackling new lock programs. That will give a higher priority for the Chickamauga replacement lock, which still needs another four or five years of construction to complete.

Frank Chirumbole, president of Olin Chlor Alkali Products in Charleston, Tenn., praised the House vote Wednesday night.

"The Chickamauga lock on the Tennessee River has been important to the success of Olin's Charleston plant which was recently modernized with a $170 million investment in 2012," he said. "Recent lock failures have underscored how vulnerable this aging piece of infrastructure has become."

The existing Chickamauga lock, built in the 1930s by TVA, suffers from "concrete growth" caused by a chemical reaction in the rock aggregate of the lock walls. The existing lock requires aggressive maintenance by the corps, which projects the lock may last only three to seven more years before it must be closed permanently for safety repairs.

The lock was unexpectedly shut down this fall for 10 days due to problems in the upper gate wall.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.