Maryville Daily Times: Chickamauga Lock repair prospects boosted by House

Posted on December 5, 2014

The lock jam is breaking — finally.

As announced by U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and U.S. Reps. John J. Duncan Jr. and Chuck Fleischman, the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would help fund repairs to the Chickamauga Lock. And did so with bipartisan support.

The legislation, the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, includes an industry-supported user fee provision that would provide about $260 million for inland waterways projects across the country over the next 10 years.

Through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund capital will flow to repair infrastructure, including the Chickamauga Lock on the Tennessee River at Chattanooga. The trust fund has been underfunded for years.

Passage is a classic win-win-win. The fee increase — 9 cents per gallon of commercial barge fuel — is paid for entirely by barge companies, at their request. It does not impact recreational boaters, who will still have free passage through the locks.

Industry is happy. Taxpayers are happy. And to top it off, environmentalists are happy.

It takes 58 large semi-trailer trucks to transport what a barge can carry. One 15-barge tow takes 870 large semi-trailer trucks off the road. That means fuel conservation and cleaner air with safer and longer-lasting highways. It also means jobs saved.

Alexander, the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that oversees funding for the lock, said, “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.”

Unless corrective measures are accelerated, closure of the lock is inevitable. The lock’s days are numbered because of concrete growth resulting from the mix of water and aggregate that was used in the construction of its walls.

A shutdown — which happened for 10 days in October — would block 313 miles of navigable waterways on the upper Tennessee River. It would be a barrier to waterborne travel from above Chattanooga to the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and the world.

A new, larger lock could give river access to 6.7 million tons of cargo annually. It is estimated that $200 million in paychecks and 3,000 jobs could be lost with the lock’s closure. And those estimates are over two years old.

According to Alexander, the House action was the third of three major steps in his long-term plan to replace Chickamauga Lock. The project will take several years to finish and is expected to cost more than a half-billion dollars.

The first two steps were passed into law as part of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, including:

• A change in the cost share for Olmstead Lock in Ohio from 50 percent of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to 15 percent, to enable more existing money to be used for other projects, including Chickamauga Lock;

• The prioritization of Chickamauga Lock as No. 4 in the federal government’s priority list for inland waterways projects;

The third step is the enactment of the user fee increase commercial barge owners pay to use river locks and navigation.

Alexander originally proposed all three changes to Chickamauga Lock funding as part of the American Waterworks Act in 2012. When Republicans take control of the Senate in January, Alexander is expected to serve as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. He says he’ll use that position to help make sure Chickamauga Lock remains a construction funding priority.

The measure next goes to the Senate for approval before landing on the president’s desk.

The Senate vote should be swift and the president’s signature should be sure — finally.