One day after Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said reforming the Inland Waterways Trust Fund was the only viable way to fund maintenance and construction of a new Chickamauga Lock, his opponent Mary Headrick countered by saying she would support increasing the tax on marine diesel fuel per gallon in order to bolster the lock's funding formula.
Members of the barge industry have said they would support raising the tax on fuel from a current 20 cents per gallon to 29 cents per gallon. Monies from the tax would be placed in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which provides 50 percent of lock and dam projects across the country. The other 50 percent comes from federally appropriated funds.
"The Chickamauga Lock should be replaced," Headrick said in a news release. "Until replaced, it should be repaired and remain in operation. The new construction, already underway, should be federally budgeted, partially federally funded and resumed. I favor increasing the marine diesel fuel per gallon tax, as favored by barge operators."
The candidate also said that if elected she would support creating block grant transportation infrastructure project funds that would be applicable to lock replacement needs, along with the creation of "very low-cost" bond opportunities through federal and state governments to help funding.
The 72-year-old lock, which received zero dollars in funding in President Barack Obama's budget for the upcoming fiscal year, has been deteriorating because of expansion in the concrete, threatening its overall structural integrity. If funding fails to come through for an "aggressive maintenance" regimen and eventual new construction, 318 miles of barge traffic on the Tennessee River could be rendered useless.
The lock was originally slated to be shut down and replaced in 2005. It is now projected to be replaced by 2018 at the earliest, for a cost totaling more than $693 million.
The result would force businesses relying on water transport to revert to rail and highway—clogging regional thoroughfares and cutting off a conduit for an estimated $500 million in transportation annually.
During his visit to the lock Tuesday, the congressman said he did not see raising the fuel tax on barges as a realistic fix to the problem.
"Right now, I don't think it's a revenue problem in terms of taxes; it's a revenue problem in terms of distribution," Fleischmann said. "As you know, in addition to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, a percentage of the funds actually comes from the treasury. We can certainly look at reforming the mechanism, but I don't think it's necessary we have tax increases."
Fleischmann said he was looking to a plan introduced last spring by Sen. Lamar Alexander, which would potentially 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 located on the Kentucky and Illinois border. That project—first on the fund's priority list—currently uses more than 90 percent of the fund's resources annually.