When the long-debated, often-delayed Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway opened in 1984, critics condemned the almost $2-billion project as an example of “pork barrel” waste while advocates claimed the waterway would become a major shipping corridor, estimating that the waterway would carry 28 million tons in its first year and 99 million tons by 2035.
Now, 30 years later, it’s safe to say that both claims were well off the mark.
While a study by Troy University in 2009 estimated that the Tenn-Tom had produced $43 billion in economic impact since it opened, the amount of cargo shipped along the waterway has never come close to reaching those initial projections.
In 2004, the Tenn-Tom carried just 7 million tons of cargo, compared to the 307 million tons carried on the Mississippi River. In 2012, the most recent year for which numbers have been verified, the Tenn-Tom carried 7 million in cargo.
So while the Tenn-Tom has not been the disaster critics predicted, it has yet to live up to its potential.
That may be about to change, however.
On Friday, a few dozen people — including officials from chemical company Tronox’s facility in Hamilton, marine transportation company SEACOR AMH and the Tenn-Tom Waterway Development Authority — gathered at Jimmy Bryan’s R.D. Lucas Port in West Point for what could best be described as a trial run for weekly cargo service to and from the Port of Mobile.
The group watched as five 20-foot containers filled with Tronox product, were loaded onto a SCF Marine barge. The shipment is scheduled to arrive in Mobile on Tuesday in tow of a Yazoo City Towing tow boat and, if all goes smooth, Tronox will soon begin regular shipments of its products along the waterway to Mobile.
Officials referred to it as a concept test for intermodal shipping. Friday’s cargo is bound for the Netherlands.
Better for the environment
Eric Koenhn, planning and distribution supervisor for Tronox, said his company sees numerous benefits from using the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Up until now, Tronox trucks its product to Memphis, where it is shipped by rail to points east and west. This includes roughly 20-percent of its exports, which is transported to ports on the east coast.
Koehn said shipping its export product down the Tenn-Tom to Mobile would shorten delivery times by as much as a week.
“That’s pretty important, especially because the export market has really picked up recently,” Koehn said. “Another advantage we see is in the area of environmental impact. Instead of putting everything on trucks and driving it 250 miles to Memphis, which is what we do with about 98 percent of our product, a lot of that product will come here, just down the road. We also anticipate that it will produce some cost-savings for us, too.”
SEACOR AMH Director of Port Operations Jessie McCarthy said securing shipping on a regular basis with SEACOR could be the first step in succeeding where other companies have failed.
“We’ve actually been working on this for almost three years,” McCarthy said. “It’s not a new idea. Over the years, other companies have tried to maintain a regular shipping schedule. But previously, no one has been able to make it work, mainly because they were not able to secure enough business to make it viable. But we think that, unlike those efforts, the timing is right. So we’re very excited about this.”
McCarthy said a successful relationship between his company, the Bryan-owned Tom Soya Grain Company, Yazoo City Towing and Tronox could open the door for an explosion of shipping along the Tenn-Tom.
In Lowndes County alone, the prospects are numerous — steel products from Steel Dynamics, paper products from Weyerhaeuser, and tires from Yokohama Tire Company, which begins production this fall, just to name a few of the more obvious potential clients.
Perry Lucas, vice president and general manager at the Lucas Port, said if Friday’s trial run goes well, it could mean a considerable increase in shipping at the port, which opened in 1982.
“I think it could potentially mean we could add more equipment and jobs,” Lucas said.
McCarthy said SCF’s barges can carry an enormous cargo — 72 20-foot containers — and can run as many as eight barges at a time.
“We anticipate that we could move 12,000 containers up and down the waterway annually,” he said.
Regionally, there are hundred of potential clients, but what we have found is that many of them want to see how this works before they commit. That’s why we are so excited to be able to do this with Tronox. We really feel this will open a lot of doors.
“We believe there is great potential here and we want to be a part of it.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.