commentary (2007-42)

Lock and Load


Keeping Knoxville a port is worth the expense

by Barry Henderson

The Tennessee River system is just thatâ"a system. Created and defined by TVA and the Army Corps of Engineers, it is there for multiple purposes. Itâ’s not just for flood control, power generation, and recreation. Navigation is a major facet.

For that reason, the replacement of the Chickamauga lock at Chattanooga is a vital exercise in government savvy. The lock that opened in 1940 is functioning, barely, while a larger lock is being constructed. Swelling and deterioration of the concrete have rendered the old lock unusable for more than a few more years.

Locking through the river system is not just for the Vol Navy coming upstream for UT home football games and fishermen heading for tournaments. It keeps Knoxville from becoming, for the first time in its history, landlocked. That is not insignificant. The dams and locks that have made Knoxville accessible to barge traffic provide inexpensive ingress to and egress from the Knoxville area for commercial and industrial materials and fuels.

It may be true that those materials could be transported overland by train or truck, but the river offers the most economical way for shipping in bulk, and it takes trucks off the interstate highways in the process.

There was a time, five years ago or so, when the outlook for replacing the Chickamauga lock was pretty bleak. Though TVA had recommended its reconstruction and 2nd District Rep. Jimmy Duncan of Knoxville was campaigning through his position on the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee in Congress, the cost of the lockâ’s replacementâ"nearly $350 million in allâ"seemed a formidable deterrent to its approval. Rail interests, including the long-haul lines such as Norfolk Southern and the short lines, such as the Knoxville-based Gulf & Ohio, were lobbying against the investment as unnecessary, claiming that they could move the needed freight without going to the expense needed to rehabilitate the crumbling lock.

Rep. Zach Wamp of the 3rd District, Duncanâ’s fellow Republican in whose bailiwick the Chickamauga lock resides, was able to maneuver the expenditure through the House Appropriations Committee, on which he serves. Two other Tennessee Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, steered the measure through the Senate, and the replacement process got fully underway in 2005.

The new lock, scheduled to open in 2010, will be 600 feet long and 110 feet wide, almost doubling the capacity of the existing 360-foot by 60-foot lock and encouraging greater use of the river for barge traffic. More than 1.3 million tons of commodities, worth more than $300 million, was shipped through the lock in 2005, and maintenance of the existing lock was deemed essential during the reconstruction work. The cargo included chemicals, minerals and ores, grain, coal and petroleum products, all of which are either produced or play huge roles in production or go into industrial use upstream.

Alexander says that heâ’s been told when the new lock is open to barge traffic, up to 4.3 million tons more cargo could pass through, potentially taking more than 100,000 trucks off I-75/I-40 each year.

Thatâ’s a lot of diesel fuel that may be saved and a lot of air pollution that can be abated if freight is switched to the river system.

The entire nation can benefit from the fuel savings, but we in East Tennessee can look forward to the possibility that our chronically poor air quality might be improved as highway trucking through Knoxville lessens. Thatâ’s especially important to us.

Such future benefits may indeed be great, but the single greatest single factor in favor of maintaining and upgrading the river systemâ’s locks is to keep our cityâ’s port open to river traffic, from here via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans or through the Tenn-Tom Waterway to Mobile. Those links to the worldâ’s oceans grow in significance as this world grows inexorably smaller and our river represents our lifeline to the expansion of international trade.


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