Tenn-Tom Stakeholders Gather for Annual Development Opportunities Conference

Operators, managers and advocates for industry and navigation on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway gathered at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort in Point Clear, Ala., August 21–23 for the 36th annual Tennessee-Tombigbee Water Development Opportunities Conference. The event also coincided with the annual meeting of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Council as well as the Southeast Rivers Basin meeting of Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals (IRPT).

More than 300 people attended the three-day conference, which included presentations by elected officials as well as leaders from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the maritime industry; networking-focused receptions; a dinner and auction; and a concluding golf scramble and seafood buffet.

As always, a focus of the program was the reports from representatives with the Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard.

Col. Sebastien Joly, commander of the Mobile Engineer District who took command June 29, made sure to share with the crowd that his presence in the Mobile District—particularly in Alabama—was like coming home.

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“I’ve got strong ties to the state of Alabama,” Joly said. “Back in the early ’90s, I had the opportunity to come to the Marion Military Institute, where I graduated from the junior college program and earned my commission here as a second lieutenant in the engineer regiment. Who knew back then that I would wind up coming back to Alabama, definitely not as a colonel.”

While at Marion, Joly met and married his wife, who was a student at Judson College at the time.

Joly told the crowd that the day after he took command of the Mobile District he was on a survey boat with Jimmy Lyons, director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, gaining a waterside perspective on the Port of Mobile. The impact on his command was immediate, Joly said, adding that the deepening of the Mobile Harbor is a key focus of his leadership of the district.

“I could just see it as I was going around the harbor,” Joly said. “I was very impressed with the capability it has, and I think adding an additional 5 feet of depth, increasing the width of the mouth, easing one of the bends in the approach, as well as a turning basin, makes sense. The Corps is here to help support national economic development, and this project, as we’re studying it, seems to make sense.”

The Corps has already released its general re-evaluation review to the public and is gathering public input on the report. Joly said he anticipates a final decision by the end of next year.

“If everything goes well, I think for the low-low price of about $388 million in about three to five years, we should be able to execute that project, if we can get it all the way through,” Joly said.

Corps officials went on to brief conference attendees on trends and upcoming projects on both the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and throughout the Mobile District. Wynne Fuller, chief of the operations division for the district, overviewed tonnage trends on both the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, which begins near Birmingham, Ala. The five-year averages on those waterways are nearly 7.8 million and 19.2 million tons, respectively. Fuller also pointed out the positive impact that recreation and visitors have on the waterway. In 2016 alone, 1.35 million visitors were reported at recreational facilities and parks within the confines of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Fuller said, with more than $61 million in visitor spending that supported 546 jobs.

Justin Murphree, operations manager for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, then overviewed recent and upcoming work along the waterway. Murphree said a new gate No. 3 is being built for the spillway at Stennis Lock and Dam, with delivery anticipated in January 2019. The Corps is also anticipating a closure toward the latter part of the summer of 2019 to repair the lower miter gate at Whitten Lock and Dam. From an equipment standpoint, Murphree said the waterway recently received two new stop log barges, built at Conrad Shipyard in Orange, Texas. The mv. Tenn-Tom will also be drydocked in October, and the floating crane R.W. Davis will soon be replaced by a 300-ton crawler crane on barge.

The crowd also heard a report from Adam Walker, project manager for the Nashville Engineer District, regarding Kentucky Lock and Chickamauga Lock. At the present, Walker said he anticipates the new Kentucky Lock coming online in 2024, with Chickamauga opening in September 2023.

Frank Fogarty with the Alabama State Port Authority updated Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway users on the latest expansions at the Port of Mobile, which include the next phase of development at the port’s container terminal, construction of a roll-on/roll-off automotive terminal, and the ramping up of a Walmart distribution center. Fogarty stressed that for the Port of Mobile, deepening and widening the Mobile Harbor is about much more than driving traffic to the port’s container terminal.

“The Corps is doing the study and has been for some time to deepen and widen the channel to get us down to 50 feet to accommodate, not just the bigger container ships, but the bigger bulk carriers that handle the coal and then across the terminal at the Pinto Island steel terminal,” Fogarty said.

For the steel terminal, deepening the channel from 45 feet to 50 feet would mean ships could bring in 60,000 to 70,000 tons of steel slabs at a time, rather than the current max of about 40,000 tons.

The crowd also welcomed a pair of members of Congress: Rep. Robert Aderholt, from Alabama’s 4th district, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, from Alabama’s 1st district.

Two speakers—Dr. Janaina Siegler, assistant professor at Butler University, and the Maritime Administration’s Jim Murphy—also focused on the long-hoped-for development of container-on-barge movements on the inland waterways.

Advocates and operators on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway can mark their calendars for next year’s Development Opportunities Conference. The 37th annual gathering will take place August 27–29, 2019, also at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear.