Rep. Chuck Fleischmann directed questions on the Chickamauga Lock toward top officials for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wednesday during a House subcommittee hearing.
The congressman learned that in one official's finding, the lock is "structurally stable."
The hearing of the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee was the third attended by the congressman since being appointed as an appropriator last December—a move that positioned Fleischmann to have more influence on procuring funds for district projects like Chickamauga and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Fleischmann directed his questions at Jo-Ellen Darcy, U.S. secretary of the Army for Civil Works, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, who is commanding general for the Army Corps of Engineers.
"It seems the corps' maintenance program is something along the lines of 'fix it as it fails,'" Fleischmann said, beginning his question. "How much additional funding would the court require to be able to do more preventive maintenance of the Inland Waterways infrastructure, and secondly, what is the corps' standard for determining that a lock, such as Chickamauga, is in poor enough condition to receive maintenance funding?"
"... Unfortunately, because of the funding in this particular case, the most that we could do is put the monitors and devices on the lock," Bostick replied. "And what we have found is that [the lock] is currently structurally stable."
Along with other committee members, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers, R-Ky., was in attendance.
Following the hearing, Fleischmann said in an interview with Nooga.com that he left with feelings of frustration. The congressman specifically cited the answers given to his questions regarding Chickamauga.
"I asked when they thought the lock would be completed, to which I got a very nebulous and evasive answer," Fleischmann said. "I didn't get any specifics from any witnesses."
The congressman said he was puzzled by Bostick's remark that the lock at Chickamauga was "structurally stable."
Fleischmann noted that, on a recent visit to the lock, he was told 300 instruments were constantly monitoring 3,000 points of stress on the 72-year-old facility. Most locks would typically have approximately 30 similar devices.
"I trust the general's opinion, but when you have 300+ devices on a lock, that's not good," he said. "I do accept his answer and will continue to work hard to make sure the existing lock receives enhanced maintenance dollars."
By "enhanced maintenance," the congressman was referring to a regimen of aggressive upkeep being carried out on the lock by Army engineers before a new lock is completed. No funding was allotted in federal budget for the lock in the current fiscal year, putting a target finish date for the $693 million replacement of the facility to 2018, at the earliest.
The lock at Chickamauga has been plagued by delays, stuck behind others projects with higher priority levels in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which pays for half of all lock and dam projects across the country.
Fleischmann said the structuring of the trust fund was at the core of the problem facing Chickamauga—the line he has taken over the past year. The congressman added that he would not consider any other suggestions for addressing the lock until it was understood that an overhaul of the way trust fund dollars are handled was being addressed.
"Until we get there, all other potential solutions, whether they're revenue-based or not, are moot," Fleischmann said.
Wednesday's hearing came 11 months after the congressman's last questions on the lock in a House hearing. The congressman's most recent visit to Chickamauga was to tour the lock in its dewatered state in September of last year.
Proposals being discussed currently include a measure set to be introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., which would free up dollars for lock and dam projects and increase the barge tax on diesel fuel by 50 percent—approximately 9 cents per gallon. The increase is supported by members of the barge industry.
Still, Fleischmann suggested increasing fees for barge operators wouldn't address any of the lock's most pressing needs.
Fleischmann said he would consider Alexander's bill "with all due respect," but offered no indication he would be open to a proposal that included a tax increase from the offset of any review by him or members of his staff.
"Until [the fund] is fixed, all other solutions pale in comparison," he said.
The lock serves more than 300 miles of barge traffic on the Tennessee River, with an estimated $500 million on barge freight passing through annually. Were the lock to close, all barge traffic on the river would be redirected to highways.