$2B Tenn-Tom Waterway yet to yield promised boom

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway near the lock in Amory (Craig Ford)

More than a century in the making, the 234-mile (376-kilometer) Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was supposed to fulfill a dream of "orderly growth and prosperity" when it opened in 1985, snaking its way through the poor, rural Deep South. It hasn't worked out that way.

Posted: Sep 16, 2019 8:37 PM
Updated: Sep 17, 2019 9:13 AM

EPES, Ala. (AP) — More than a century in the making, the 234-mile (376-kilometer) Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was supposed to fulfill a dream of "orderly growth and prosperity" when it opened in 1985, snaking its way through the poor, rural Deep South.
It hasn't worked out that way.

Delayed for decades by environmental concerns and detractors who called the project a boondoggle, the $2 billion shipping shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico — best known as the Tenn-Tom, or more derisively, the "big ditch" — has never come close to traffic projections used to sell it to the public, and poverty rates have increased in most of the counties it flows through in Mississippi and Alabama.

There are pockets of relative prosperity where the manmade waterway connecting the Tennessee River from Pickwick Lake to the Black Warrior-Tombigbee River system near Demopolis has helped lure industry. Yet these days, someone fishing along its banks is about as likely to see retirees headed to the Florida Keys on their cabin cruiser as they are a tugboat pushing a string of barges.

"It was the greatest thing that was going to happen. It was the thing. It was the hope," body shop owner Walter Porter said. "Now it's just a ditch."

Porter is mayor of tiny Epes, where an $8 million port meant to help spur development in rural Sumter County sits unused near the Mississippi state line. The lone company that regularly used the port, Mannington Mills Inc., said it switched to other shipping means in 2001.

Sumter hasn't been able to capitalize on the waterway or much anything else. Its poverty rate increased about 20 percentage points, to an estimated 36%, from 1980 through 2017. Its population, now about 13,000, has been in steady decline. One of Epes' few businesses closed this spring.

Promoters say the waterway generates more than $8 billion annually in economic benefits and more than 24,000 jobs. Tons of wood products, steel, chemicals, crushed rock and grain ply the waterway each year. Hundreds of boats and yachts pass through annually while traveling the "Great Loop" from the Great Lakes to the Florida Keys, a benefit not expected by early proponents.

The Erie Canal boosted New York City by creating a pathway to the port from the Great Lakes after it opened in 1825. Around the same time, building a shorter route to the Gulf was first proposed shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and Congress authorized a study in 1874.

Traffic on the Tennessee River had to swing hundreds of miles north to connect with the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, long the main water route from the central United States to the Gulf. The idea was that connecting the Tennessee to the Tombigbee River would lure traffic from the Mississippi.

The waterway eventually was approved in 1946, but funding stalled when opponents challenged it as unrealistic, saying it had been engineered by powerful Southern legislators to bring federal dollars to an impoverished region. Officials didn't break ground on the Tenn-Tom until 1971 after an environmental lawsuit was resolved.

Thousands of workers built a series of 10 locks and a navigable, 300-foot-wide (91-meter-wide) waterway with a minimum channel depth of 9 feet (2.7 meters). More than four times as long as the Panama Canal, it was, at the time, the Army Corps of Engineers' largest infrastructure project ever.

The Corps and supporters justified the spending with predictions that shippers would send 29 million tons (26 million metric tons) up and down the Tenn-Tom annually, and the opening ceremony proclaimed it the pathway "to a dream of orderly growth and prosperity for all the people of this region, and for the nation as a whole."

However, Corps statistics show an average of only 7.2 million tons (6.5 million metric tons) of cargo traveled the Tenn-Tom annually over the past decade, just a quarter of the initial forecast. By comparison, about 304 million tons (276 million metric tons) of cargo went up or down the Mississippi River, which can accommodate much larger loads, over the same period.

"It's the lack of development. It just hasn't been what they thought it would," said Mitch Mays, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority. Alabama and Mississippi are making new efforts to promote the Tenn-Tom, he said.

Officials say there's no single reason companies didn't flock to the waterway. The rise of overseas industry hurt domestic businesses just as promoters were trying to sell the Tenn-Tom as a new route. Some blame the decline of coal and poor promotion for the lack of growth; others cite an inadequate workforce and the inertia of generational poverty.

"The poor counties that were poor and were in poverty were that way for other reasons," said Allison Brantley, who promotes economic development in Sumter through the University of West Alabama.

Some communities have fared well.

Dependable waterway access combined with aggressive marketing by economic developers has helped reduce poverty over the past three decades in the northeastern Mississippi counties of Itawamba, Lowndes and Monroe. With jobs available, the population is holding steady or rising slightly in each county.
In Columbus, a mill now operated by Steel Dynamics is at the center of an industrial hub that includes aerospace companies, a diesel engine plant, a nearby tire plant and a new, $42 million "communiversity" that will train workers. The town had a head start because of an Air Force base that has provided jobs for decades.
Tugboat captain Ty Banks watched from a boat deck as a massive crane unloaded scrap metal brought up the Tenn-Tom for Steel Dynamics, which manufactures enormous steel rolls that are shipped on the waterway.
"If it's not here, I don't have a job," said Banks, who works for Watco, a port services company.
Business also is humming on the Alabama side at Fred Hansard's marina, the Demopolis Yacht Basin. Wet slips are full of small boats and yachts, and tugboat captains buy hundreds of gallons of fuel at a time.
But Hansard said he hoped for so much more. The government constructed a great waterway, he said, but the boom never came.
"If you run a road through a desert, even if it's a great road, is it not just a road through a desert?" Hansard said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 501652

Reported Deaths: 10024
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34353540
DeSoto32162408
Hinds31977631
Jackson24508383
Rankin22015390
Lee15596235
Madison14597280
Jones13867243
Forrest13461252
Lauderdale11998317
Lowndes11065188
Lamar10522136
Pearl River9547237
Lafayette8557140
Hancock7740127
Washington7443160
Oktibbeha7147133
Monroe6787178
Warren6706176
Pontotoc6677104
Neshoba6642206
Panola6542131
Marshall6476135
Bolivar6323150
Union605794
Pike5824152
Alcorn5676102
Lincoln5439135
George497479
Scott473098
Tippah470381
Prentiss469182
Leflore4663144
Itawamba4640105
Adams4592119
Tate4592111
Copiah448792
Simpson4448116
Yazoo444887
Wayne440072
Covington429094
Sunflower4240105
Marion4232108
Coahoma4168107
Leake408688
Newton381779
Grenada3711108
Stone360664
Tishomingo360092
Attala331789
Jasper330165
Winston314691
Clay308977
Chickasaw301067
Clarke292594
Calhoun279447
Holmes267987
Smith264150
Yalobusha234547
Tallahatchie228251
Greene219449
Walthall218764
Lawrence213140
Perry205956
Amite205256
Webster203046
Noxubee186840
Montgomery179657
Jefferson Davis172243
Carroll169338
Tunica160039
Benton149239
Kemper141941
Choctaw133326
Claiborne132837
Humphreys129638
Franklin120328
Quitman106528
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94734
Sharkey64220
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 820312

Reported Deaths: 15407
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1148731924
Mobile726221339
Madison52362697
Shelby37640350
Baldwin37266552
Tuscaloosa35120612
Montgomery34123740
Lee23540246
Calhoun22236488
Morgan20958378
Etowah19838500
Marshall18381304
Houston17394412
St. Clair16078339
Cullman15468293
Limestone15354199
Elmore15271286
Lauderdale14323295
Talladega13851283
DeKalb12664261
Walker11221370
Blount10207176
Autauga10048148
Jackson9877184
Coffee9211191
Dale8904185
Colbert8877201
Tallapoosa7093198
Escambia6778134
Covington6715183
Chilton6648162
Russell637559
Franklin5969105
Chambers5612142
Marion5010127
Dallas4979200
Pike4796106
Clarke475884
Geneva4575127
Winston4522103
Lawrence4327117
Bibb425386
Barbour357876
Marengo338390
Monroe331664
Randolph329864
Butler326796
Pickens316584
Henry312866
Hale311688
Cherokee302960
Fayette294180
Washington251651
Cleburne247760
Crenshaw245375
Clay243368
Macon234863
Lamar224847
Conecuh186353
Coosa180340
Lowndes175464
Wilcox168939
Bullock151744
Perry138940
Sumter133238
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
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