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Staff photo by Tim Barber / Chickamauga Lock construction

NASHVILLE — Retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander says he expects an additional $69 million for the Chickamauga Dam Lock replacement in Chattanooga if the U.S. Senate's version of a major energy and water spending bill clears Congress with the years-long project possibly completed as early as 2023.

"We've had consecutive funding for the 'Chick Lock' for seven years now," said Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, in a Times Free Press interview last week. "That means we're probably actually going to finish it by 2023."

Alexander, who leaves office Jan. 3 after 18 years, said this year's funding depends on the outcome of expected negotiations between the Republican-led Senate and Democratic House on 12 appropriations bills.

They include the Fiscal Year 2021 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies bill that includes funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Civil Works mission.

Alexander is pushing to provide the additional money and change the funding formula to put a bigger federal contribution to work on the new lock at the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga during fiscal 2021.

The proposed spending measure, which Alexander introduced along with the ranking Democrat on the panel, seeks to provide a record-high $7.72 billion for the Army Corp of Engineers to maintain and rebuild the nation's waterways.

So far, the federal government has appropriated $527 million over the years to replace the crumbling existing Chickamauga Dam lock. It was constructed and opened in 1940 by the Tennessee Valley Authority and later taken over by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It still needs another $265 million.

It's been a years-long replacement effort for the lock at the dam, built and opened in 1940 by the Tennessee Valley Authority and later taken over by the corps. The new 110-by-600-foot lock is being erected beneath the existing smaller lock to allow tow boats to more efficiently push more and bigger barges through the lock at one time.

With adequate funding, the Corps has previously estimated the new lock could be completed by 2024. Project funding has faced past hurdles, including larger, even more expensive projects in other parts of the country ahead of the local lock replacement.

But consecutive years of funding have been key, Alexander said, "and I just made sure because I'm chairman of that committee that the Army Corps of Engineers had enough money to do that year's work on the Chickamauga Lock."

Alexander said "we also reorganized the funding and the building — the biggest infrastructure program in the United States in the last 10 years is what we did on locks, dams and harbors."

That was aided by barge operators asking for increases in diesel taxes they pay because of lengthy delays at jammed river locks.

Alexander said after working with then-U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, a Chattanooga Republican and House Appropriations Committee member, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, is on the same committee and is "now moving up in seniority on the House side, although he's not chairman, and he's not in the majority."

"It helps a lot to be chairman and in the majority," Alexander said.

Fleischmann said he and Alexander have "worked together probably more than any other House members because of his work on Energy and Water." In fact, Fleischmann said, it was Alexander who urged him to seek a spot on the House Appropriations Committee in order to better ensure the state's success on major funding needs.

"I cannot overstate the hole that will be there without Lamar in a senior appropriator's position," noted Fleischmann, adding the appropriations committees' impact areas including the U.S. Department of Energy-run Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex, which is in his district.

Fleischmann said he has spoken to Sen.-elect Bill Hagerty, the Republican elected in November to replace Alexander in the Senate, and made the suggestion that he seek a spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Waterways Council Inc. President Tracy Zea, whose organization advocates for modern and well-maintained inland waterways, including lock and dam infrastructure, called Alexander a "true champion of inland waterways," pointing to this year's 2021 bill as an example.

The Senate version "provides the corps with the ability to fund Chick to completion," Zea said. While there are no earmarks for specific projects, he added, Alexander's panel did "provide the mechanism to fund that project to completion."

Zea said that was accomplished with bill language stating cost-share for Chickamauga Lock be adjusted with 85% coming from general revenue funding and the remaining 15% coming from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. That's one of the things that the Senate and House conferees will be discussing, Zea said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter at AndySher1.

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