Posted on June 19, 2010
The Tennessee River provides tremendous benefits and opportunities for commercial navigation, recreation and the environment throughout the Tennessee Valley.
Recreational boaters, who according to the Tennessee Valley Authority contribute over $20 million to the economy annually, and commercial navigation share many of the same interests: a safe, modern, reliable and well-maintained waterway infrastructure that preserves the environment while enhancing quality of life.
Navigation locks at nine mainstream dams on the Tennessee River allow commercial tows and recreational craft year-round access to the 652 mile-long mainstream channel and the river’s numerous tributaries.
But many of the locks are near or beyond their design life. Completed in 1940, the Chickamauga Lock near Chattanooga is at an increasing risk of failure due to an alkali aggregate reaction (concrete growth). Studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and TVA indicate that the risk of catastrophic failure increases dramatically beyond 2010, and at some point TVA will have to permanently close the Chickamauga Lock to all waterway traffic out of concerns for safety.
In addition to locking through 4,050 recreational vessels in 2009, which makes it the highest volume lock for recreation on the Tennessee River system, the Chickamauga Lock provides access to 318 miles of commercially navigable waterways that are a vital transportation artery critical to the region’s economy.
Commodities that pass through the lock have origins or destinations in 17 states. Closing the lock would impact the heartland of America and beyond, making lock replacement important to not only Tennessee, but also to a large portion of the nation.
Sen. Alexander lends support
In 2005, preparation was begun for construction of a replacement lock next to the existing structure, but later this year work will be suspended for at least a decade. Construction funds are not included in the president’s fiscal year 2011 budget, and revenue of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund that is derived from the diesel fuel tax of 20 cents per gallon paid by the commercial towing industry are not sufficient to pay the 50 percent of construction costs for planned improvements and rehabilitation of the nations’ navigation infrastructure.
In a budget year when many of his colleagues in Congress are not requesting funding for projects in their states, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has courageously acknowledged the constitutionally mandated responsibility of Congress in the budget process, stating, “When Tennesseans contact me about projects in Tennessee, it is not my job to give them the president’s phone number.” Sen. Alexander has requested $26 million to ensure continued construction of a replacement lock.
Tennessee’s senior senator has also expressed strong support for recommendations of the Inland Marine Transportation System Capital Investment Strategy. Consisting of members of the Inland Waterways Users Board and high-ranking officials of the Corps of Engineers, a “White Paper Working Group” has worked for one year to develop the reforms that are also supported by U.S. Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Tennessee River Valley Association and the commercial towing industry.
The recommendations include preserving the 50 percent federal and 50 percent industry cost-sharing formula and increasing the fuel tax to as much as 29 cents a gallon as needed to provide $110 million annually to fund navigation improvements and construction.
The Tennessee River Valley Association encourages support for Sen. Alexander’s efforts on behalf of the Chickamauga Lock project. These efforts will ensure that the Tennessee River continues to provide the benefits and opportunities to commercial navigation, recreation and the environment that make vital contributions to the economy and quality of life in the Tennessee Valley.
Cline Jones is executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association Tennessee-Cumberland Waterways Council.