A drainage of water provided a convenient backdrop for Rep. Chuck Fleischmann to point to a drainage in funding for ongoing maintenance and eventual replacement of the Chickamauga Lock Tuesday.
But six months after his last visit to the lock, the congressman's prescription for addressing the yearslong predicament remained the same—and his personal outlook toward a solution to securing federal monies specifically for Chickamauga was minimal.
For Fleischmann, the solution to paying for aggressive maintenance of the current lock while building a new one relies heavily on the plan being hatched by a Tennessee senator, which would reform the funding mechanism for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.
"Sen. Lamar Alexander has a plan, and we have been looking at that plan," Fleischmann said. "We are strong proponents, supporters of reforming the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, so we can get a more equitable distribution of funds throughout the lock system, and, therefore the Chickamauga Lock could share in those."
Reforming the trust fund, which pays for half of the lock and waterway maintenance projects nationwide, was at the center of Fleischmann's suggestion for a solution when he visited the lock with Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., in March. On Tuesday, the congressman said Alexander and "other members of the House" had been working on bills addressing the fund that "have begun to move," but he did not indicate when he expected any reforms might actually take place.
Alexander's plan, first reported in April, would free up an additional $72 million in trust fund and federal funding for waterway projects by creating an alternative funding method for the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Kentucky and Illinois border. That project, at the top of the fund's priority list, eats up more than 90 percent of current trust fund monies annually.
It was Fleischmann's third visit to the lock since taking office nearly two years ago. The congressman donned rubber boots and a hard hat before descending 50 feet down to tour the de-watered floor of the 72-year-old lock, where he then sloshed through mud, algae and stacks of dried-out mussel shells as he and members of his staff were led around the deteriorating facility by officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It was also the congressman's first time touring the lock in its de-watered state. The de-watering process, which usually occurs every five years, has been increased to every three for Chickamauga in order to inspect and repair the stressed facility.
Along with the walls, tunnels, valves and doors, more than 300 pieces of instrumentation monitoring approximately 3,000 points of contact on the lock were are being inspected. Typical locks have 30 devices.
The de-watering process is expected to take three weeks, at a cost of a little less than $2 million—paid for with funding from last year's budget. President Barack Obama's budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes zero dollars for maintenance or eventual replacement of the lock.
Lt. Col. James DeLapp, commander for the Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, said work on the new lock had stopped "effectively." DeLapp was among the officials who guided Fleischmann Tuesday.
"We're not only barely hanging on, we just don't have any money to move forward," DeLapp said. "So every day, every week, every month that goes by is putting this current lock as the one thing that keeps commerce going up and down the Tennessee River."
The lock, which serves 318 miles of barge traffic on the Tennessee River, provides a conduit for an estimated $500 million in transportation annually. The facility was originally slated to be shut down and replaced in 2005 because of structural deficiencies resulting from the ongoing physical expansion of its concrete structure.