Twenty-Five Years Later, Tenn-Tom Remains an Economic Engine

December 28, 2009

This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.  The Tenn-Tom may not be a household name across other parts of the country, but Mississippians recognize the waterway for what it has been and what it continues to be: an instrument of economic growth and opportunity.

The Tenn-Tom was a long time in the making.  The first recommendation to build a water transportation route linking the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers was made by the French explorer Marquis de Montcalm around 1760.  More than a century later, in 1874, the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant had engineers look into the project.  Numerous studies were commissioned in the decades that followed, eventually leading to Congressional approval in 1946.

With a strong push from Rep. Jamie Whitten, Sen. John Stennis, and the entire bipartisan Mississippi and Alabama delegations, construction finally began in 1972.  Then, on December 12, 1984, the last plug of earth was removed near Amory, allowing the waters of the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers to meet for the first time – nearly 225 years after the idea was first proposed. 

                                    Engineering Marvel
Today, the Tenn-Tom is known as a modern engineering wonder.  The waterway is the largest project of its kind ever constructed in our country.  At 234 miles long, the Tenn-Tom’s construction required 25 million man-hours of labor.  It provides waterway access to 17 states, 14 rivers systems, and over half the nation’s population.

More important than its sheer size and reputation as an engineering marvel, the Tenn-Tom has become an economic engine that has brought quality jobs and needed revenue to Mississippi and other states in the region. 

Northeast Mississippi has benefitted greatly from this federal investment.  A number of industries have set up shop along the waterway, drawn here by the availability of our skilled workforce and the cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and safe transportation provided by the Tenn-Tom. 

Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, recently announced it was expanding its Iuka facility with plans to add 600 jobs over the next eight years.  Another leading example is Severstal.  The company invested $1.3 billion in its Columbus plant, resulting in one of the most advanced steel mills in the country and creating more than 400 quality, well-paying jobs. 

Other steel companies have followed suit.  Earlier this year, G&G Steel announced its new plant in Tishomingo County, while DynaSteel announced the expansion of its facility, also in Tishomingo County.  And late last year, Steel Development Co. broke ground on a $175-million dollar rebar manufacturing plant in Amory that, when complete, is expected to employ around 200 people. 

The Tenn-Tom’s positive economic attributes do not end there.  Its unique recreation and tourism opportunities have also helped grow the economy of communities all along the waterway.  The Tenn-Tom attracts nearly three million recreational visitors each year who come to enjoy its world-class fishing and natural beauty.  In the process, these visitors provide a steady stream of revenue for the marinas, restaurants, campgrounds, resorts, and hotels along the waterway.     

                                 Impressive Economic Impact

The cumulative economic benefit of the Tenn-Tom has been impressive.  An analysis released in February by the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority found that as a result of the Tenn-Tom, our nation has enjoyed an overall economic impact of nearly $43 billion since 1996.  The study also found that during that time more than 29,000 jobs have been directly created because of the waterway – 41 percent of those in Mississippi.  When indirect employment is added, the study showed the Tenn-Tom was responsible for nearly 140,000 American jobs since 1996.

The economic advantages of the waterway extend far beyond our region.  Companies in the South and Midwest that utilize the Tenn-Tom experience significant transportation cost savings that help their companies remain competitive in the global economy.  One gallon of fuel can move a ton of cargo 514 miles by barge on the Tenn-Tom, compared to 202 miles by rail and 59 miles by truck.  As a result, the waterway reduces fuel consumption by as much as 20 million gallons per year when compared to shipping by truck. 

My efforts on behalf of the Tenn-Tom date back to my staff days with then-Rep. Trent Lott.  Since coming to Congress 14 years ago, I have worked to ensure the waterway receives the funding it needs.  
As we look back on the last quarter century, we should be proud of the Tenn-Tom’s history.  At the same time, we can be excited about its future.  The waterway’s best days are ahead of it, and we can expect it to continue generating benefits for generations to come.