Keep river traffic rolling: Congress should enact better funding system for locks and dams

Pundits say this election will be an epic battle between two distinct philosophies of government.

Meanwhile, down on the Tennessee River, we have a concrete reminder that, more than a clash of abstractions, we need elected leaders who can reach practical solutions.

The reminder is actually crumbling concrete. The 72-year-old Chickamauga lock is living on borrowed time. But there is no money to finish building a new one.

This is not an isolated problem. Many of the nation's locks and dams are far older than their life expectancy, and the trust fund for rehabbing them has been depleted.

A Corps of Engineers boondoggle, the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River near Paducah, will drain the trust fund for the foreseeable future. But even without Olmsted, the funding system for upgrading locks and dams cannot pay for a backlog of projects. Everyone agrees it needs reform.

The barge industry is asking Congress to raise its fuel taxes before a lock failure triggers a cascading crisis. This summer's drought has shut down traffic on the Mississippi at times while a deeper channel is dredged. A failed dam or closed lock would take a lot longer to fix.

Kentucky industries and utilities depend on barges to transport grain, coal, steel, motor fuels and other products.

Last week, the New York Times reported that while coal shipments on the Ohio River have declined, cargo shipments, including to and from Gallatin Steel in Kentucky, are markedly up — a sign that manufacturing and the economy are rebounding in the Ohio Valley.

Letting a 90-year-old lock snuff that rebound would be crazy. But if Congress has taught us anything in recent years, it's to expect crazy.

Consider Republican freshman Chuck Fleischmann who represents the Tennessee district where the Chickamauga lock is crumbling. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that Fleischmann toured the lock for the third time last week and said he'd been putting "hard, hard work" into finding $507 million to finish its replacement. Yet he repeated his opposition to the barge operators' proposal to increase their fuel tax from 20 to 29 cents a gallon. Like most of the GOP, he has signed a pledge to never raise any tax.

Fortunately, a pair of more reality-based Republicans — Kentucky's Rep. Ed Whitfield and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander — are stepping up.

Whitfield is sponsoring legislation that would raise the fuel tax on barge operators and provide better planning and oversight to avoid repeats of the Olmsted boondoggle. (A $775 million project that was to be done by 2000 won't be finished until 2024 at a cost of $3.1 billion.)

The problem with Whitfield's plan is that it shifts too much of the costs off waterway users and onto taxpayers. They now share construction costs 50-50, with taxpayers picking up 100 percent of the cost of operations and maintenance. Both of the most recent administrations, Bush and Obama, have proposed user fees and tolls as a better way to pay for construction.

Such details could be worked out by well-meaning people seeking a solution not a soapbox.

Meanwhile, Alexander wants to excuse the barge industry from having to pay its half of the remaining Olmsted costs, which would free up money for other projects. This seems fair since the barge industry didn't create the mess, but it's a minor stopgap.

The U.S. government has invested in inland waterways about as long as there has been a U.S. government.

The Panama Canal expansion, which, by the way, is coming in on time and within budget, will open up new export opportunities along the Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee river corridors.

We're not sure where upgrading infrastructure to capitalize on economic opportunity falls within the epic philosophical clash.

We do know Congress should get 'er done.