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Tenn-Tom Canal Turns 20

Mon February 28, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Cronin



What some say is the largest earthmoving project in history not only smashed records but spurred the creation of a new piece of construction equipment.

A specially-designed machine to lay rip-rap was built by Morrisen-Knudsen in Boise, ID.

The machine, which was described in the May 1981 edition of eM-Kayan magazine as resembling a “huge steel bridge frame,” was used to help protect the slopes along 11 mi. of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mi. (377 km) canal that connects these two major rivers to provide a shorter travel time to the Gulf of Mexico.

The machine was disassembled, shipped to the site, and then reassembled.

A self-propelled unit, the machine’s main truss was 145 ft. (44 m) long, the magazine said, and was powered by its own electrical generator.

During its operation, front-end loaders supplied rip-rap to a shuttle hopper, which, in turn, transferred the rock to a feeder hopper that moved up the truss while placing a uniform blanket of rip-rap on the slope. It could lay approximately 270 tons (245 t) of rip-rap per hour on the slope, which averaged 90 ft. (27 m) long.

Hearing about this machine was just one of the memories Al Wise has of his time working on the Tenn-Tom from 1975-79.

Just out of the University of Alabama, Wise joined the Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts in the construction of the waterway.

And now, more than 20 years after the Tenn-Tom opened to traffic, Wise plays a major role in the waterway as its operations manager.

The Corps of Engineers acted as the project manager for the $2-billion project and brought on private contractors to perform the work through more than 100 contracts for everything from excavation and dredging to construction of the 10 locks and dams.

The project required the excavation of approximately 310 million cu. yds. (237 million cu m) of dirt — approximately 100 million dump truck loads.

The contracts for the locks ran from $30 million to $80 million, while some other contracts earned private contractors millions.

“My job was very challenging,” Wise said. “I loved to go to work everyday.”

During the canal’s creation, Wise started as an engineer intern and worked up to the role of office engineer at the Tom Bevill Lock and Dam near Aliceville, AL. He also worked at the Aberdeen Lock and Dam site as assistant resident engineer in charge of field operations.

The Bevill lock and dam was constructed in a rural area, where Wise said crews got to the job site through a cow pasture.

With so much work available to those in the construction industry during the project, which ran from December 1972 to December 1984, Wise said skilled workers moved to the area from all over the country and many had a hard time finding a place to live.

However, more than 85 percent of the workers were locals. Each project’s contract included a clause that local workers should be given priority during hiring.

Diversity also was stressed to the contractors. By the end of the project, 33 percent of the workers were minorities and 5 percent were female.

Approximately $450 million in contracts was awarded to minority firms. Wise said he works with many people who learned their skills during the canal’s construction.

Like Wise, Paul Perkins also carries with him fond memories of the Tenn-Tom’s construction.

Now owner of Construction Contract Specialist in Shalimar, FL, a consulting firm, Perkins worked on the Tenn-Tom project for a decade.

Approximately a year of work had already occurred by the time Perkins was assigned to the construction of the lock and dam near Gainesville, AL. Following his time there, he was moved to the Aberdeen Lock and Dam site.

First assigned to the project as a project engineer, a title he said sounds a lot more impressive than its duties, he had been promoted to an assistant resident engineer by the end of construction.

Perkins said the aspects of the waterway on which he worked proved to be a challenge just because of the scope of the work.

“The sheer volume of the work was overwhelming,” he said.

Coordinating all the different aspects on the project was a difficult task.

This was complicated even more by the presence of U.S. 45 and railroad tracks at the Aberdeen site, since crews were not allowed to interrupt the flow of train or vehicle traffic.

There, crews constructed temporary trusses on which the road and tracks ran.

The successful completion of the Aberdeen Lock received a lot of attention since it was the final lock the Mobile office supervised; the Nashville, TN, office oversaw the remaining lock.

For the workers, it was “champagne time” when the first barge came through, Perkins said.

Without much else in that part of Alabama, he said the 200-ton Manitowac cranes dominated the view. The job site was filled with a bevy of dozers, excavators and other heavy equipment.

The work involved in the 174 ft. (53 m) deep canal’s construction was almost inconceivable.

It required the movement or replacement of 22 bridges, projects, which were placed in the hands of the states of Alabama and Mississippi.

Crews kicked off construction with the Howell Heflin Lock and Dam. For this and the other nine locks, more than 2.2 million cu. yds. (1.7 million cu m) of concrete and 33,000 tons (30,000 t) of reinforcing steel were required.

Wise said one of the most challenging portions of the construction project sparked some improvements in technology.

The Divide Cut, a 27-mi. (43.5 km) canal that connects the Tenn-Tom with Pickwick Lake, required crews to cut through the hills of northeast Mississippi between the two river basins.

This project also fell within the Nashville district’s 26- mi. (42 km) stretch of the Tenn-Tom.

In that area alone, more than 150 million cu. yds. (115 million cu m) of dirt was removed to create a 12 ft. (3.7 m) deep, 280 ft. (85 m) wide canal that can be seen from outer space.

Seven contractors worked for approximately eight years on the Divide Cut, which is where Morrisen-Knudsen’s rip-rap machine performed its duties.

Perkins said he didn’t have time to miss working on the Tenn-Tom because the Corps kept him busy with other projects throughout the country. “But I go back quite often and look at it with pride.”

Opinions Vary on Economic Impact of Tenn-Tom(/span>

TUSCALOOSA, AL (AP) Some call it a boon to industrial development and commercial trade in Alabama and Mississippi.

Others said it’s a boondoggle, a waste of 2 billion taxpayer dollars that cost farmers their land and animals their habitat.

The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was born in controversy that, two decades later, it is still trying to shake. Has the waterway been worth the investment and the sacrifices required to build it?

Providing a definitive answer would be difficult, said Carl Ferguson, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama.

“But I would ask this: Where was Alabama 20 years ago?” Ferguson said. “We weren’t even on the map for people looking to locate industries and businesses. Today, we are very much a player not only nationally, but internationally.

“Now is that all because of the Tenn-Tom? Of course not, but it was one of many factors that all came together about two decades ago that paved the way for JVC, Mercedes and the other industries that have located in West Alabama.”

Still, 7 million tons of commercial goods are annually shipped down the Tenn-Tom, far short of the estimated 28 million tons cited in a study used to justify construction.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the effect the mixing of the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers has had on aquatic life and lament the loss of hardwood habitat for the flora and fauna of the land.

Proponents noted that the connection of the two major rivers has spurred industrial development in parts of the state and was considered a major influence in luring Boeing to Decatur. Future indicators show that commercial traffic is likely to grow in the coming decades.

The Tenn-Tom also is heavily used for recreation by residents, attracting 2.6 million visits a year and bringing tourism dollars to communities along its banks.

Planners had high hopes for the usefulness of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in preparing a cost/benefit analysis of the canal.

The link from the upper Ohio River valley to the Gulf of Mexico was expected to be well regarded among commercial shippers as a shorter route to the sea.

But the barge traffic has been slow.

A study released in 1975 projected that the annual commerce moving over the waterway would be 28 million tons in the initial year, with an increase to 99 million tons by the 50th year of the project.

But less than 7 million tons of commercial goods were shipped along the waterway in 2003, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center.

Brent Blackwelder, who worked with the Environmental Policy Institute in the 1970s, said the promises were that the Tenn-Tom would create an industrial river valley like that around the Ohio River and in such cities as Pittsburgh through East Mississippi and West Alabama.

“The taxpayers were taken for a ride,” he said. “The traffic projections they needed to break even on the deal haven’t come close to that level, maybe a quarter of it. It’s that bad.”

Why the discrepancy between projections and reality? Blame the Middle East oil embargo of the 1970s, some said.

In 1973, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries stopped exporting petroleum to the United States and greatly increased oil prices to U.S. allies after the United States helped Israel repel an attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces within its borders.

The embargo led to panic around the world and a search for alternative energy sources.

Coal, which is plentiful in the Appalachian region of the United States, was expected to fill the void. In fact, the 1975 Tenn-Tom study anticipated that 22 million tons of coal would be shipped down the waterway annually.

“The detractors looked at that study as a gimmick to get the project built,” said Don Waldon, director of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority, “but this was the universal thinking of what was going to happen to our energy policy.”

But the embargo was lifted and the world again received its share of petroleum at a lower price.

Also, power plant operators in Florida and elsewhere once relied on coal shipped from the Ohio River Valley that could have been shipped on the Tenn-Tom. But the plants began importing coal and the waterway wasn’t needed for transport.

Al Wise, Tenn-Tom operations manager of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, said simply measuring the weight of objects shipped down the waterway is not a fair way to determine if the Tenn-Tom was worth the cost.

He said that a 150-ton rocket shipped from the Boeing plant in Decatur is much more valuable than the same tonnage of coal.

Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove invoked the same comparison in a letter to Corps Chief Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers in 2002 imploring the Corps to reconsider how it treats all commerce the same in its reporting.

Musgrove wrote that one Delta IV rocket was worth $38 million, or the equivalent of 1.2 million tons of coal.

The Tenn-Tom proved particularly useful in 1988 when a summer drought closed the Mississippi River to barge traffic. The waterway was used as an alternative route and kept plants in the Ohio Valley and Midwestern states supplied with essential raw materials.

But when the water level on the Mississippi rose, the barge traffic returned. The disadvantage of the Tenn-Tom is that it is much narrower than the Mississippi and harder to navigate, said Charles Haun, executive vice president of Parker Towing Co., a barge-towing service based in Tuscaloosa.

While the Mississippi can allow a tow as large as 60 barges to flow down it (although a tow half that size is the norm), the Tenn-Tom can hold only eight barges at a time in its locks.

The Tenn-Tom is at least 300 ft. wide over its entire length, but the inside dimensions of its 10 locks are 110 ft. wide by 600 ft. long.

Those lock sizes are fairly standard across the country, except for on the Ohio River. The newer locks there are 1,200 ft. long.

The locks on the Mississippi River are the same dimensions as those on the Tenn-Tom, but none of them are south of St. Louis, which means commercial traffic isn’t slowed down by navigating a lock system.

“The lower Mississippi is probably the most efficient transportation system in the world,” Waldon said.

Even though the Tenn-Tom provides a shorter route between the Ohio River Valley and the Gulf of Mexico than the Mississippi, the inability for large tows prevents it from getting as much traffic, said James K. Lyons, director of the Alabama State Port Authority.

Compare the 307 million tons of commodities shipped through the Mississippi to the 7 million transported along the Tenn-Tom.

“It’s the economics of scale. We’re not going to do as much because of the transportation dynamics,” Lyons said.

Still, Haun said the Tenn-Tom is the best way to go upstream. A small tow heading north will usually choose the Tenn-Tom over the Mississippi because the river has a swift current.

“The Mississippi is great for bringing loads down, but it’s murder pushing barges up,” he said. “You’re sometimes lucky to make three miles per hour.”

Tows can make twice that rate going up the Tenn-Tom, he said. Conversely, it’s about twice as fast to go down the Mississippi.

“While the waterway never lived up to those projections on tonnage, I think the waterway has been a good investment for Alabama and the nation,” Waldon said.

He said that between $4 billion and $5 billion in industrial development can be attributed in some way to the Tenn-Tom, although very little of it has taken place in West Alabama.

The largest investments include a $750-million Weyerhaeuser paper mill in Columbus, MS, the $450-million Boeing plant in Decatur and a $450-million Ipsco Steel plant near Mobile.

Waldon said the reason many communities along the canal haven’t seen more development has nothing to do with less-than-expected barge traffic.

“The problems that have inhibited industrial development in West Alabama are the same ones that groups like the Black Belt Action Commission are trying to address,” he said. “You can have waterfront property, but if you don’t have the infrastructure and other amenities, you’re not going to get industry moving there.”

Proponents of the waterway argue that the Tenn-Tom has proved beneficial by helping to reduce transportation costs for manufacturers and producers in as many as 14 states.