The first draft of a massive bill to fund projects for the nation's harbors, ports, locks and dams includes a provision that could have big implications for the Chickamauga Lock.
Officials in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released the first version of the bill, called the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, last week. Along with financing construction and repairs for the nation's 12,000 miles of inland waterways, it includes a change to the funding mechanism of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund—which currently has the Chickamauga Lock low on its priority list.
The fund, which is composed of taxes paid by barge operators and commercial users, pays for half of U.S. waterway projects. The other half comes from the federal government.
Under its current structure, the majority of funds is put toward the completion of the overdue, over-budget Olmsted Lock and Dam project, located along the Illinois and Kentucky border. The backlog has put the replacement of the 73-year-old Chickamauga Lock on hold, placing the current structure at risk of continual deterioration and threatening the 6.7 million annual tons of barge traffic the lock services for 312 miles of the Tennessee River.
With the new bill, funding for Olmsted would be reduced to a cost share of 25 percent, which would then free up funds for other projects, including Chickamauga.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said the congressman saw the news as positive.
"Rep. Fleischmann has worked closely with Chairman [Rep. Bill] Shuster [R-Penn.,] and is pleased to see that the House is moving forward with a WRRDA bill this year," Tyler Threadgill, press secretary for Fleischmann, said. "This legislation is certainly a step in the right direction toward reforming the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, for which the congressman has long-advocated."
The House proposal comes four months after the Senate approved its version of the legislation. Advocating for the Chickamauga Lock, Sen. Lamar Alexander said the bill would provide the most "steady path" offered for actual completion of the project in years.
Efforts are underway by both members of Congress and the business community to sell the bill, which has a price tag of $12 billion. In a video uploaded to YouTube, Shuster narrates over whiteboard cartoons to explain how Americans depend on clear and smooth waterway traffic for basic household items such as cereal, appliances and clothes.
"It's a bill that's essential to our everyday lives," Shuster says in the video. "You see, we are surrounded by the goods that travel through our ports and waterways, goods that start off our day, goods that feed us."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also advocating for the bill. In a new analysis of the impact of waterways on American jobs and commerce, the chamber estimated that waterway infrastructure supports 46,436 jobs in Tennessee and directly contributes approximately $8.2 billion to the economy.
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