Four months after revealing a proposal geared at completing the replacement of the Chickamauga Lock, Sen. Lamar Alexander has yet to introduce a bill to the Senate but said he expects to do so soon.
Alexander said Wednesday he plans to bring the item forward this session. If passed, the measure would free up millions of dollars in funding for replacement of the deteriorating 72-year-old lock.
The lock services 318 miles of barge traffic along the Tennessee River.
Alexander told regional industry leaders during a meeting with the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association that he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., were discussing the legislation with the Obama administration, as well as Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
"It's a real solution," Alexander said.
The bill, called the American Waterworks Act, would do two things.
First, it would remove a requirement that the Olmsted Lock and Dam project along the Kentucky and Illinois border be completely funded through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund—a move that would free up approximately $147 million in funds designated for other lock and dam projects nationwide.
On the current priority list of Inland Waterway Trust Fund projects, Chickamauga is third.
Second, the bill would increase the fuel tax for barge operators by approximately 50 percent. Members of the industry, who currently pay a tax of 20 cents for every gallon of fuel burned on the nation's inland waterways, have offered their support for the 9 cent rise in "user fees."
In a visit to the lock last October, Alexander presented the plan.
Tim Spires, president of the Regional Manufacturers Association, said the bill would have "all the support it needs" from regional industries who depend on the river for shipping. Spires said from a Chattanooga perspective that ensuring a functioning lock and river flow were crucial.
"We have members all along the river who are important to us," he said.
Although Alexander's bill has yet to be introduced, the senator said it was his intent to get the bill in front of Congress this session. It that doesn't happen, he suggested portions of the legislation may get tacked on to an upcoming energy and water authorization bill.
"We may have to pass it piece by piece, but that's not always a bad way to be doing things," he said.
With an ongoing and expensive regimen of "aggressive maintenance" taking place and zero dollars appropriated for the 2013 fiscal year, the threat of lock closure has presented a problem to lawmakers seeking to ensure the flow of commerce on the river.
An estimated $500 million of barge freight passes through the lock annually.
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