$2B waterway through Deep South yet to yield promised boom
Epes, Ala. – 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.