This story was updated at 10:33 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, with more information.
Aided by a record-high budget this year for inland waterway projects, construction continues by the Army Corps of Engineers on a new and bigger lock at the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga.
But future funding toward completing the lock remains uncertain after President Trump proposed cutting out federal funding for such projects next year.
A work plan for fiscal 2020 released Tuesday by the Corps of Engineers allocates $101.7 million to continue work on the replacement of the crumbling existing lock at the Chickamauga Dam, which was built and opened in 1940 by the Tennessee Valley Authority and later taken over by the Corps.
A new 110-by-600-foot lock is being erected beneath the Chickamauga Lock to replace the current, smaller lock and allow tow boats to more efficiently push more and bigger barges through the lock at one time. With adequate funding, the Corps has estimated the new lock could be completed by 2024.
"This is great news for East Tennessee since it will help keep up to 150,000 trucks off I-75 and keep the cost of shipping goods low for manufacturers across the state," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But while funding is up this year due to higher congressional appropriations for the Corps' inland waterways projects, the Trump administration is continuing to push for the Corps to limit its future spending. The budget proposal for fiscal 2021 unveiled by President Trump on Monday provides no additional funds for construction of ongoing priority navigation projects such as the Chickamauga Lock that are cost-shared through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The White House budget plan also cuts funding for the Corps' Civil Works operations overall by 22% compared with the current year.
Mike Toohey, president of industry group the Waterways Council Inc., said the barge industry "is extremely disappointed and absolutely astonished at no investment in rebuilding the nation's critical inland waterways transportation system."
"No president has ever proposed zero infrastructure investment," Toohey said in a statement after the Office of Management and Budget unveiled its budget proposal. "Are we to lay off the workers constructing the projects now underway?"
In the current fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, Congress boosted the Corps budget above the president's initial budget proposal and appropriated $335 million for four projects under construction on the inland waterways system, including the Chickamauga and Kentucky lock projects on the Tennessee River.
In each of the past three budgets proposed by President Trump, Congress has ended up raising the proposed budget for the Corps of Engineers. Both Alexander, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, have identified the Chickamauga Lock project as one of their top funding priorities and have worked to boost funding for the Corps over recommended cuts by both Democrat and Republican presidents over the past decade.
"If the President's FY21 budget is accepted, these construction projects would shut down for one fiscal year, workers would be laid off, and costs would increase when the projects are restarted," the Waterways Council said in a statement.
The barge diesel tax was raised in 2014 to 29 cents a gallon to help provide more matching funds for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to pay for lock upgrades such as what is underway at the Chickamauga Dam. The Trump administration is proposing $180 million in additional annual fees on boaters and barges, but Toohey said matching taxpayer dollars are being cut or even ended for some programs.
"This budget, if left to stand, would gut the waterways as a viable transportation option for our nation's family farmers and other shippers of key commodities," Toohey said. "The budget will hopefully be considered dead on arrival in Congress, and I will offer to members of the House and Senate to provide the shovel and the preacher."
Design and site work began on the Chickamauga lock replacement in 2004 and the Corps projects the new lock should end up costing $795 million, assuming Congress provides adequate funding each year to sustain work on the project.
The cost of the lock replacement, which was originally forecast at under $300 million, has escalated, in part, because construction work was suspended for three years due to a lack of funding for the new lock from 2012 to 2015 and some of the riverbed excavation proved more costly than originally predicted..
If Congress sustains efficient funding levels in the next three years, the Corps of Engineers projects that the replacement lock could be built and open by December 2024.
Adam Walker, the Corps of Engineers project manager for the Chickamauga Lock, said the replacement lock project is now about 36% complete.
The $101.7 million funding level for the Chickamauga Lock project in the current fiscal year — the highest single year funding level yet for the new lock — will allow for completion of the $240 million project to erect the lock chamber beneath the dam where a coffer dam has already been erected. The contractor for the project, Shimmick Construction Co., owned by AECOM, is using giant cranes to place the new lock walls in place within the coffer dam.
Walker said some work has been slowed due to the high currents and water levels caused by heavy rains this month. But unlike a year ago the contractor is not allowing the lock chamber to flood.
Next year, if funding is provided, a contract is scheduled to be awarded for building the retaining and approach walls for the new lock.
The Corps has recommended an efficient funding level of about $76 million for the Chickamauga Lock project for fiscal 2021 to sustain the current schedule, Walker said.
But such funding will require Congress to appropriate money not recommended in the Trump administration budget.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.