From hope to South’s ‘big ditch’

$2 bil­lion short­cut to Gulf of Mex­ico fails to yield boom

The Morning Call - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Jay Reeves

EPES, Ala. — More than a cen­tury in the mak­ing, the 234mile 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 man-made water­way con­nect­ing the Ten­nessee River from Pick­wick Lake to the Black War­riorTom­big­bee 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 of 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.

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 water­way with a min­i­mum chan­nel depth of 9 feet. 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 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.”

Corps sta­tis­tics show an av­er­age of 7.2 mil­lion tons of cargo trav­eled the Tenn-Tom an­nu­ally over the past decade, just a quar­ter of the ini­tial fore­cast. By com­par­i­son, 304 mil­lion tons of cargo went up or down the Mis­sis­sippi River, which can ac­com­mo­date 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 re­new­ing 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.


A mas­sive crane un­loads scrap me­tal along the Ten­nessee-Tom­big­bee Water­way in Colum­bus, Mis­sis­sippi, on July 22.

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