Chattanooga Times Free Press: Editorial: Chickamauga’s costly lock

Posted on October 19, 2010

Most of us don’t often think about the Chickamauga Dam lock that allows Tennessee River traffic to pass through Chattanooga on the Tennessee River, unless we drive on the bridge over the dam. But the Chickamauga lock is of very great economic importance, not only to Chattanoogans, but to countless people and businesses over a large area.

The Chickamauga lock “unlocks” Tennessee River traffic 318 miles upstream from Chattanooga and hundreds of miles downstream to the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and the rest of the world. Chickamauga Dam, with its lock, was constructed as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the ’30s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt came here to dedicate the Chickamauga Dam in 1940.

In the past 70 years, much water has gone through the dam’s generators, producing electricity. And many barges and other boats have passed through the lock with vital economic cargo.

We must keep the very important river traffic moving.

Engineers and others have been aware for a number of years that a natural water and chemical reaction has caused the Chickamauga lock concrete to deteriorate — threatening to make the current lock inoperable within a very few years.

That’s why work has been under way for several years to replace the deteriorating, and really inadequate, 60-by-360-foot lock with a new 110-by-600-foot lock that will beneficially handle a great deal more barge traffic in the future.

The 2001 cost estimate of $268 million for the new lock has grown, largely because of inflation, to $630 million for completion in 2015.

Where will the money come from? Since the nation’s major waterways are federal government responsibilities, money appropriated by Congress is being matched by a river traffic diesel fuel tax of 20 cents a gallon. But that’s not producing enough money as costs rise. So Congress is considering raising the diesel tax to 29 cents a gallon.

We certainly can’t afford to have the project stop for lack of funding.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said: “It would be shortsighted for the United States to allow the lock to close. That would hit not only Chattanooga, but all of East Tennessee because of the jobs it would threaten and the additional traffic it would create on I-75.”

It has been noted that every 15-barge tow is equal to 216 railroad cars or 1,050 tractor trailers on our roads.

Replacing the Chickamauga lock is very expensive — but delaying or limiting Chickamauga Lake’s connecting river traffic would be terribly more expensive.

This important though economically painful work should continue, to finish the new lock five years from now.