Chattanooga Times Free Press: House approves tax measure that could revive Chickamauga Lock

Posted on December 3, 2014

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 404-17 tonight to approve a measure that includes an increase in fuel taxes on barge operators that could help revive funding for the stalled Chickamauga Lock.

The industry-backed measure will raise the diesel fuel tax on barges from 20 cents a gallon to 29 cents a gallon, generating another $40 million a year to be put into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund that pays for lock and dam projects like the stalled Chickamauga Lock project in Chattanooga.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said today he was able to attach the proposed fuel tax increase on to a popular measure designed to allow people with disabilities to create special accounts for tax-free savings. The so-called ABLE Act has 380 sponsors, including Fleischmann, and is expected to be approved in the House later today and possibly in the U.S. Senate on Thursday.

Fleischmann calls the increase in the fuel tax "an industry fee" rather than a tax increase and said he doesn't see a vote for the higher fuel fee as contrary to the pledge taken by most House Republicans to oppose any tax increase.

Fleischmann said the extra funds generated by the tax should help revive work on a new lock to replace the crumbling existing lock at the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga.

Fleischmann acknowledged that it would be difficult to pass such a fuel tax increase on barges in a stand alone bill.

"But by working to attach this to the right vehicle, that should help us get this needed measure passed," Fleischmann said today.

U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has been urging Congress to raise the barge tax for two years to help improve inland waterway infrastructure, praised the House tonight for its vote in favor of a higher fuel tax on barges.

“Passage of this legislation would mean Congress has accepted the offer by commercial barge owners to pay more to replace Chickamauga Lock, and that construction could resume as early as 2016,” said Alexander, who is the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which oversees funding for the lock. “Replacing Chickamauga Lock keeps good jobs flowing into Chattanooga and East Tennessee – including at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, nuclear facilities and manufacturing plants – makes it easier for recreational boaters to go through the lock at no cost, and keeps 150,000 trucks from clogging up I-75. I especially congratulate Congressman Fleischmann for his work on this legislation."

Earlier this year, Alexander and Fleischmann worked with Democrats in their respective chambers to revamp the funding formula for locks and dams built by the Army Corps of Engineers to help free up more money for projects other than the $3.1 billion Olmsted Lock and Dam project, which has been absorbing all of the funds in the inland waterways fund.

Fleischmann, whose campaign criticized rival Weston Wamp this summer for his support of higher fuel taxes, said he didn't want to support any fuel tax increase until the funding mechanism for the inland waterways trust fund was changed so the Chickamauga Lock was more likely to be funded.

Earlier this week, Fleischmann joined with U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinksi, D-Ill., another member of the House transportation committee responsible for inland waterway projects, in a letter to House leaders urging them to increase the barge fuel fees.

"With our nation's aging waterways infrastructure under increasing strain, it is imperative that we provide additional financing for our inland waterways system as soon as possible to help goods move efficiently and safely," Fleischmann and Lipinksi said in their letter to other House members.

The measure is being pushed by the barge industry to help avoid potential closures at the Chickamauga and other aging locks. Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which has secured pledges from most members of Congress to oppose any tax increase, is not opposing the measure, Fleischmann said.

“I like to say it’s not a tax increase, but just an inflation adjustment to make up for the fact that the tax has not been increased since 1995,” said Cline Jones, executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association, a trade group that is backing the tax increase to help fix more locks and dams. “It’s long overdue.”

The tax increase could free up funds to restart the idled Chickamauga Lock, although the new lock at the Chickamauga Dam remains behind major projects at the Olmsted Dam on the Ohio River, the lower Monongehela lock and dam in Pennsylvania and the Kentucky Dam in Kentucky.