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The Water Way

The Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, connecting Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Mobile, also links Alabama to 12,000 miles of inland waterways nationwide.

Left: Tim Parker’s family company, Parker Towing, has moved freight on the waterway more than 70 years, starting with a paddlewheeler. Right: Larry Merrihew says waterways offer cost-effective, eco-friendly transportation.

Left: Tim Parker’s family company, Parker Towing, has moved freight on the waterway more than 70 years, starting with a paddlewheeler. Right: Larry Merrihew says waterways offer cost-effective, eco-friendly transportation.

Photos by Caroline Baird Summers and Dennis Holt

For more than 60 years, Alabama’s Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway has quietly kept commerce churning from Birmingham to the Port of Mobile, connecting two of the state’s most productive industrial hubs and yielding an estimated economic impact of $17 billion.

And as economic development leaders have worked relentlessly to diversify the state’s industrial base, the waterway has remained an efficient shipping artery, recognized increasingly as a cost-effective, environmentally conscious mode of transportation.

Larry Merrihew, president of the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association, says there’s no question Alabama’s economic landscape has undergone a substantial transformation during the past two decades, luring both international steel and copper conglomerates, creating an unrivaled automotive manufacturing corridor and capitalizing on the growth of a burgeoning biotechnology sector.

But without the amenities the Warrior-Tombigbee affords, he says, some of those options would have been far less attractive to investors without a physical link to 12,000 miles of inland waterways nationwide.

“Our rivers provide not only an efficient, cost-effective navigation source, but they also literally help fuel power generation—feeding and transporting both coal-powered and hydroelectric energy operations—support a strong recreation industry, provide the water supply for much of the state’s population and are a major source of tax revenue for the state and federal governments,” Merrihew says.

Demonstrating a measurable return on investment is an entirely separate matter, however, which is why the association commissioned Troy University in 2011 to study the waterway’s economic impact on the 15 counties affected by the system directly and the state as a whole. Merrihew says the results speak for themselves.

“Good investment”

Calling the Warrior-Tombigbee a “good investment in long-term growth,” the study revealed the waterway returns about $347 million in tax revenue annually, or roughly 12 times the ideal maintenance budget, and has created 35,000 direct jobs and at least another 30,000 indirect positions.

Merrihew says those figures don’t begin to tell the whole story, though, because an estimated 250,000 people “depend on this river daily for their livelihood.”

“You have to remember that Alabama’s rivers, and especially the Warrior-Tombigbee system, usually run through rural areas, and that helps parts of our state that wouldn’t have an industry otherwise,” he says.

Modernization efforts on the waterway began in the 1950s, and today it transports more than 20 million tons of freight annually with an annual maintenance budget of only about $28 million, administered by the Mobile district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Unfortunately, Merrihew says, that figure has remained relatively flat for the past decade, while costs have continued to increase, forcing the association to make every penny count.

“If (the Corps) runs into outside stresses like flooding or an issue at one of our locks that routine maintenance didn’t cover, then there’s a need for additional dollars, and they have to figure out in a hurry how to solve those problems because we certainly can’t afford to be shut down,” says Merrihew, calling the system’s six locks “mature” but healthy at roughly 50 years old.

Consider, for instance, that “only a few years ago” it would cost the Corps roughly $1,800 per hour to dredge the river system following a flood compared with around $2,200 per hour today, he says.

“The Corps here is very much attuned to our needs, but if you’re still only getting that $1,800-per-hour allocation, it becomes a balancing act, and it all comes back to keeping everything properly maintained, and the annual allocation of funds simply has not kept pace with rising costs,” he says.

Going with the flow

Like any other infrastructure that expects to survive, the Warrior-Tombigbee’s ability to adapt to shifting consumer demands is what will ensure the waterway continues to thrive, Merrihew says.

“Right now, there’s a good bit of coal coming and going, but we also see a good bit of crude oil and steel is becoming a major product on all of our rivers,” he says.

In addition, Merrihew says demand for transport of chemzicals, sand and gravel, iron ore and scrap metal continue to increase, and the waterways are beginning to wade into the bio-fuel industry.

“Paper products have fallen off sharply, because our paper mills are pretty much gone, but metal shipments, especially related to the automotive industry, are increasing, and grain shipments are starting to come back to the rivers, too,” he says. 

The Black Warrior River connects with the Tombigbee River to form the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway. The Tombigbee connects the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

Because the automotive industry as a whole operates in just-in-time inventory, Merrihew says, river transport is too slow to keep pace with the standard four-hour delivery cycles, but the supply chain is beginning to take notice of the affordable, efficient method.

“Time is of the essence in a just-in-time scenario, so waterways don’t figure very prominently in that process, but there are certain components being imported with increased frequency. That’s our tie, and it’s limited,” he says.

Connecting the dots

Although the Warrior-Tombigbee’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, Merrihew is the first to acknowledge the system is often hamstrung by its 8-barge tow limit, due in large part to the waterway’s sharp curves and tight bends.

On the upside, however, he notes that every barge traveling the waterway carries the equivalent freight of 77 tractor-trailers.

“There’s no question it saves wear and tear on Alabama’s roads, because that’s 616 18-wheelers not on the road with just one tow,” Merrihew says.

In comparison, the Mississippi River can accommodate between 60- and 80-barge tows, but the Warrior-Tombigbee offers access unavailable to its neighboring behemoth.

“The problem with the Mississippi is that it only runs from New Orleans to the Great Lakes, and that’s a lot of ground bypassed, especially if you need to get product to Birmingham or any number of spots off that path. We connect all the dots,” Merrihew says.

More important, the waterway boasts a major point of entry and exit in the Port of Mobile, and Merrihew credits the port  authority’s long-term planning and vision for continuing to boost volume.

“We now have the largest steel-handling facility in the United States here in Mobile, because the Port saw the future was steel and adapted its facilities with creative and inventive processes that make it much more efficient to move steel in and out. That’s part of the reason we have ThyssenKrupp, but it also makes it possible for us to feed other industries along the way benefitting from their presence,” he says.

“This Mobile-to-Birmingham link is a critical component that enhances the state’s entire transportation network, complementing an already strong railroad and highway network. The result is a complete and competitive transportation system that helps industries determine if they want to locate in Alabama, stay here or even expand, and that translates to jobs,” Merrihew says.

“Low-cost, environmentally-friendly way to move freight”

Tim Parker knows a little about that job creation.

Chairman of Parker Towing Co. Inc. in Tuscaloosa, Parker says his family’s company employs about 220 people and has come a long way from the paddle-wheel steamboat his father started with more than 70 years ago.

“Things have changed a lot since my dad started out shoveling coal in the boiler and moving cotton, sugar cane and passengers,” Parker says. Today, the company focuses primarily on coal, iron and steel shipments.

“The barge and towing business is a low-cost, environmentally-friendly way to move freight, create jobs and protect existing jobs. In addition to saving our customers money, our method leaves behind the smallest carbon footprint, and we absolutely have to have a good infrastructure in place to be able to do that,” he says.

Matt Griffiths, an account representative with AEP River Operations in Mobile, says water transportation is one of the primary reasons his company is able to serve ThyssenKrupp, among other clients, so efficiently.

“We’re here because ThyssenKrupp is a large customer of ours, and they’re on pace to move 3 million tons of slabs this year,” Griffiths says. AEP River Operations is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power.

“The Warrior-Tombigbee is a good way to move product. It’s smaller than, say, the Mississippi or Ohio rivers, so you lose some of your efficiencies-of-scale for horsepower, but it’s definitely a fuel-efficient, environmentally-conscious transport method for commodities,” he says.

Consider, for instance, the results of a report prepared recently by the Center for Ports and Waterways Texas Transport Institute for the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration and the National Waterways Foundation. According to “A Modal Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the General Public,” one gallon of fuel can move one ton of cargo 514 miles by barge compared with 202 miles by train and only 59 miles by truck.

Parker also points to the Port of Mobile as a “huge advantage” that helps “facilitate a substantial amount of commerce” and praises the condition of the six locks between Mobile and Birmingham as being “in good shape and relatively modern” when compared with much of the rest of the nation.

“As long as we’re able to put sufficient dollars back in the Corps’ budget each year, we should be able to keep this vital transportation artery reliable,” Parker says.

Kelli Dugan is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

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