Chickamauga Dam project locks up: Material ready for new lock but money short for $693 million project

Chickamauga Dam project locks up: Material ready for new lock but money short for $693 million project

February 9th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Mike Arles, quality assurance representative on the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project, checks one of the pre-cast concrete sections of an approach wall beam Jan. 31 at Watts Bar Dam near Decatur, Tenn. The beams are being assembled and stored at Watts Bar for placement in the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project when required for construction.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Existing lock

Opened: 1940

Size: 60 feet wide, 360 feet long

Builder: TVA

Problem: "Concrete growth" is crumbling lock walls

Status: Operational for one barge at a time

The new lock

Estimated cost: $693 million

Spent so far: $183 million since work began in 2006

Builder: Army Corps of Engineers

Size: 110 feet wide, 600 feet long

Status: Could be completed in five years, once money is available

Two years after the money ran out on a new lock for the Chickamauga Dam, key components for the new and bigger lock are still being delivered for the Chattanooga project with funds from the 2009 federal stimulus package.

Barges recently delivered 126 precast concrete sections that will form the walls of the new Chickamauga lock, provided that Congress finds a way to find another $510 million to complete the stalled project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that is building the new lock, said the concrete sections will be disassembled for storage at a TVA site on Watts Bar lake. C. J. Mahan Construction Co., one of three major contractors awarded work as part of $52 million provided to the Chickamauga Lock from the federal stimulus bill, will soon complete its phase of the $693 million project, officials said Friday.

"When assembly of the approach wall beams is complete, they will be stored at Watts Bar and the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project will be placed in a mothball status until funding becomes available to continue construction," Jason L. Foust, project engineer, said in a statement.

Resuming construction of the new lock may take a while since the cost of the lock project has grown along with the fiscal constraints on Corps inland waterway projects.

When the new lock at Chickamauga was originally designed a decade ago, it was projected to cost only about half the current estimate. But with funding delayed and material costs increased, the Corps has raised its completion estimate. Cost overruns on other Corps projects, combined with declining fuel tax collections during the Great Recession, have left the Corps' Inland Waterways Trust Fund without enough money to complete any of its projects other than the Olmsted dam and lock project on the Ohio River.

The existing Chickamauga Lock, which TVA built and opened in 1940, is suffering from "concrete growth" due to a chemical reaction in its rock aggregate with the river water. The crumbling lock walls in the existing lock chamber could render the lock unsafe within the next decade.

Jamie G. James, the project manager for the new Chickamauga Lock at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' district office in Nashville, said Friday that the new lock could be finished in five or six years -- once funded resumes for the project.

The value of having a lock at Chickamauga was demonstrated by the shipment of the very parts that will help shape the new and bigger lock. During January, barges carried 12,600 tons of precast concrete sections from where they were made in Melbourne, Ky., down along the Tennessee River through the Chickamauga Lock.

"This is an excellent example of the value of our navigable inland waterways in transporting heavy, bulky cargo," James said.

The Inland Waterways Trust Fund has not had any significant amount of funds to put toward the Chickamauga Lock in more than five years. The $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress in early 2009 provided $52 million for the new Chickamauga Lock to keep the project moving ahead. Miter gates, culvert valves and culvert bulk heads, were fabricated in Birmingham, Ala., under another stimulus-funded contract. That equipment is now stored at another TVA facility in Muscle Shoals, Ala., awaiting funding for contractors to build the rest of the new lock.