Unlocking more federal funds: Corps urged to spend unbudgeted monies to restart Chickamauga Lock replacement

Unlocking more federal funds: Corps urged to spend unbudgeted monies to restart Chickamauga Lock replacement

February 12th, 2015 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Because of structural safety concerns, the Chickamauga lock, completed in 1940, must be replaced.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.
The lack of funding to restart work on the new Chickamauga lock in Chattanooga demonstrates a failure to set proper priorities by the Obama administration, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Wednesday.

Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who became chairman last month of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Corps' budget, scolded Corps leaders during a budget hearing Wednesday for not using available funds to restart work on the new lock and other waterway projects across the country.

Last year, Congress revamped the funding formula for building locks and dams and raised the fuel tax on barge operators by 9 cents per gallon to help pay for more inland waterway projects.

“"We listened when we heard that the trust fund was broke and needed to be fixed and we listened when you said you needed more revenue." ”
U.S. Rep Chuck Fleischmann

"Congress has done its job to move ahead promptly on replacing Chickamauga lock, and it's disappointing the Obama administration has failed to do its job," Alexander said.

President Obama's budget plan for fiscal 2016 is $74 billion above the budget caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011, in part, because the White House is pushing for more infrastructure spending.

But the White House's proposed budget for the Corps of Engineers next year is 13.4 percent less than what Congress appropriated this year for the Corps.

The White House budget unveiled earlier this month didn't include any money to restart work on the new Chickamauga Lock, which has been stalled for the past two years due to a lack of funding.

The Corps promises to reconsider its lock projects by this summer and could use some of the $53 million of unbudgeted funds in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund next year to restart work on the Chickamauga and Kentucky locks on the Tennessee River.

“"We are almost out of time for a solution the lock could close in a few years unless progress is made." ”
U.S Sen. Lamar Alexander

"We are currently looking at evaluating the list of priorities to determine what should be next," said JoEllen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army Corps of Engineers for Civil Works. "The Corps is looking at those evaluations so that we can make a determination about the economics and whether we need to relook at our priority (list)."

The Corps has spent more than $180 million to design a new and bigger lock at the Chickamauga Dam and has installed the walls on the expanded lock beneath the dam. But the new lock is projected to cost another $500 million to complete.

The White House budget allocated $53 million for work next year at the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River and for ongoing work on new locks on the Lower Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said there is till money available to resume work on the new Chickamauga Lock.

"We listened when we heard that the trust fund was broke and needed to be fixed and we listened when you said you needed more revenue," Fleischmann told Corps leaders during a hearing in the House subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

The Inland Waterways Trust Fund should get about $107 million this year, including an extra $30 million to $35 million from the 9-cent-per gallon increase in the barge fuel tax. But only half of the trust fund is budgeted in fiscal 2016.

"And in reality, we may actually end up having in excess of $53 million because that is a rather conservative estimate (of funds from the higher fuel tax and other sources)," Fleischmann said.

While the White House budget has no money for building the new lock, it does provide $1.6 million in fiscal 2016 to maintain aggressive maintenance programs at the existing Chickamauga lock, which was built in 1940 and suffers from problems with "concrete growth" in the chamber walls.

The Corps has spent $29 million to shore up and maintain the existing Chickamauga lock since 1998 in response to the concrete growth problem.

"The last study we did said that there was no immediate danger of structural failure and what we continue to do with our meters is to monitor significant movement.to ensure that there is a potential failure we take whatever precautions we can," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the commanding general for the Army Corps of Engineers. "Right now, we don't see that as an issue."

Bostick said that the extra funds going into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund from the barge fuel tax increase will help pay for dam and lock projects in future years.

But Alexander and Fleischmann said Wednesday they want more immediate action. A closure of the Chickamauga Lock could add another 175,000 cars on to Interstate 75 and boost the shipping costs for manufacturers and other businesses and government facilities in East Tennessee.

"This project is important not just to Chattanooga, but to all of East Tennessee because of the number of jobs affected," Alexander told Corps officials during Wednesday's hearing. "We are almost out of time for a solution the lock could close in a few years unless progress is made."

While Tennessee Republicans on congressional appropriations panels urged the Corps to resume work on the Chickamauga Lock, other members of Congress appealed to the Corps to do more for projects within their states.

Despite partisan and geographic differences, however, most members of Congress said the overall $4.7 billion budget for the Corps proposed by the White House is inadequate for the flood control, port and inland waterway projects in need across the country

"It's not acceptable when we consider all of the water resource needs of our country," said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee.

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


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