House Appropriations Committee unlocks funds for river projects

House Appropriations Committee unlocks funds for river projects

April 16th, 2015 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Work on the Chickamauga lock is stagnant in this February 2014 view below the Chickamauga Dam.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Funding to revive work on the stalled new Chickamauga lock could be in the works in fiscal 2016 under a budget plan taking shape among Congressional appropriators.

The House Appropriations Committee is set today to approve a spending plan that would add $142 million next year above the current funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for building and maintaining America's dams and locks, including the crumbling 75-year-old lock at the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga.

The budget plan adopted by the House Energy and Water Development subcommittee would provide $865 million more than what President Obama had proposed for the Corps for next year. The House spending plan also will ensure that all of the additional money raised from the recent 9-cents-a-gallon increase in the barge fuel tax will be matched with public funds to boost the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

That increase should be enough to provide at least some money to resume construction of the new and bigger lock at the Chickamauga Dam, where building has been suspended for more than three years due to a lack of federal funds.

"I believe this is a good bill that prioritizes national defense and important water infrastructure projects, like the Chickamauga Lock," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who has made funding for the Chickamauga Lock one of his top legislative priorities. "The bill includes an additional $108 million dollars for Inland Waterways construction funding, which will be spent at the discretion of the Army Corps of Engineers."

Among the lock and dam projects being built by the Corps, the Chickamauga Lock currently has the fourth highest priority behind other locks in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

The Corps has already spent more than $180 million to design and start work on a bigger lock to replace the aging and smaller lock now at the Chickamauga Dam. The Corps estimates it will take more than $500 million to finish the new Chickamauga Lock.

Maintaining the existing lock at the Chickamauga Dam costs up to $3 million a year due to continued problems with concrete growth caused when river water mixes with the rock aggregate in the chamber walls.

The Corps' maintenance account under the House spending plan is nearly $3.06 billion -- the highest ever appropriated and nearly $350 million higher than the Obama administration's requested level.

U.S Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the group's budget plan stays within the overall budget guidelines adopted by the Republican-controlled House while still boosting what is spent on dams and locks.

"It provides key funds for water infrastructure projects around the country to prevent floods and increase commerce," he said.

The subcommittee's approval of the higher spending level in the trust fund for inland waterway projects "is an important and critical first step" in getting more money for the Corps and its projects, according to Cline Jones, a former congressional staffer who now heads the Tennessee River Valley Association in Decatur, Ala.

The Waterways Council Inc., an industry trade group of river users pushing for more inland waterway projects, praised the new budget plan.

"This is a cause and effect scenario: invest properly in inland waterways and ports and increase U.S. competitiveness," said Michael Tooley, president of the Waterways Council.

Without the new lock, the upper third of the Tennessee River could be cut off from river commerce. The Corps estimates that the existing Chickamauga Lock could fail within the next decade, permanently shutting off shipments between the Nickajack and Chickamauga reservoirs until a new lock is built.

On Wednesday, the new head of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority, J. Craig Stepan, toured the Chickamauga Lock to understand the importance of the water passage 150 miles upstream from the waterway he oversees.

"This lock is an important part of feeding the Tenn-Tom waterway and it's vital that we get funding to finish the new lock," Jones said. "The new Chickamauga Lock is not just a Chattanooga project or a Tennessee project. It serves a national need."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@times or at 757-6340.