For many, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is something you drive over when on Highway 82 in Columbus or Highway 50 near West Point. For others, it’s a great source of recreation.
Allan Brewer understands that.
“For a lot of people, it’s just something they see over the bridge,” said Brewer. “It’s a lot more than that.”
Brewer should know. He has been with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Columbus for 27 years and now serves as navigation manager for the Corp on the Tenn-Tom.
“Fishing, boating, recreation was always a part of the plan for the waterway, but the main reason is commercial.”
Driving home that point was what why the Corp put together a two-plus hour tour of the waterway Friday for local and state elected officials, businessmen and other state agency personnel.
“One of our jobs is to promote the waterway, and we do that by offering occasional tours like this one,” said Mitch Mays, an administrator for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority “It’s one thing to tell people about what is happening out here: It’s another to show them,” Mays said. “Every time we do this, it really seems to have a big impact and helps us tell the broader story of the waterway.”
When the Tenn-Tom Waterway was first proposed, it was perceived by many as a $2 billion pork barrel project and was widely criticized and often delayed. Work finally began on the 234-mile project that linked the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers in 1972. The waterway was completed in 1984, but its promise as a major commercial shipping corridor did not really emerge until the mid-1990s.
A 2009 Troy University study reported that from 1996-2008, the Tenn-Tom had generated $43 billion in economic impact while creating 29,000 jobs.
“We took a hit in 2009 with the Recession, but since then we’re seeing progressively more commercial traffic,'” Brewer said. “At our 10 locks and dams, we run an average of between 1,300 and 1,500 commercial lockages a year and a little more than 6 million in tonnage. And we haven’t really reached the full potential, but I believe in the future we will.”
The barge tour took visitors south as far as the Lowndes County Port, turning north through the Columbus Lock and Dam before ending at the Tom Soya Grain port in West Point.
Among the visitors was District 36 state senator Albert Butler of Port Gibson.
Butler is familiar with the impact of river traffic on his hometown, so when he and his wife were traveling through Columbus en route to Tennessee, he was eager to see the Tenn-Tom’s impact on the community.
“This is my first time visiting the Tombigbee Waterway so for me, it was really a great opportunity to see what the Corps of Engineers is doing to enhance Mississippi,” Butler said. “What they are doing is making it possible for industry to improve and grow. I see some things we could possibly utilize in other parts of the state as a result of this tour. It’s impressive.”
The most conspicuous commercial enterprise on the waterway came at the Lowndes County port, where dozens of barges and containers laden with scrap metal sat anchored to the shore as one by one they were unloaded by a giant crane into trucks bound for Steel Dynamics.
“To put it bluntly, Steel Dynamics would not be in Columbus if it were not for a waterway to support their operations,” Mays said. “There are similar stories all along the waterway.”
“I’m probably like a lot of people around here,” said state Rep. Carl Gibbs of West Point. “You don’t’ realize how much commerce there is on the river until you get out here and see it. It’s a very cost-effective, efficient way to move products and materials.”
Brewer is convinced commercial use of the waterway will only increase as the nation continues to grapple with the cost of infrastructure needed for transportation.
“On most of the barges, the general load is load is between 1,200 and 1,500 tons. So you start breaking that down into how many trucks that takes off the road, Brewer said. “Environmentally, it’s a much friendlier means of moving products. And it is cost-efficient, too.”
Mays said the waterway has long proven those initial nay-sayer wrong.
“The waterway is doing what it was designed to do, which is to generate economic opportunity, investment and jobs, “Mays said. “It’s also produced a return on investment in the form of tax money for the community and the state. But more than any of that, it is the jobs the waterway has created for people to support their families and have a better quality of life.”
That, too, is something you can’t see from the bridge.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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