To Continue or Halt the Tenn-Tom Waterway? Information To Help the Congress Resolve the Controversy

CED-81-89: Published: May 15, 1981. Publicly Released: May 21, 1981.

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The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway has had a long, troubled history. Congress authorized the project in 1946, but construction did not start until 1971. The approved project consists of the largest waterway currently under construction by the Corps of Engineers. The navigation portion of the waterway is scheduled for completion in 1986 and the overall project in 1988 with an estimated cost of $1.96 billion. A 114-mile section of the waterway was opened for limited traffic in 1979. Proponents of the waterway claim that it will benefit the entire nation by providing a more efficient and economical transportation route from the midcontinent and Eastern United States to the Gulf of Mexico. Opponents claim that the project is not economically and environmentally viable. Two lawsuits to halt construction have been brought against the government. The court ruled against the plaintiffs in both cases. Ten years after construction started, the waterway is 53-percent complete and expenditures continue at approximately $20 million a month.

GAO believes that two major issues remain: (1) whether the approximately $600 million to be saved by halting the project is worth the almost total loss of the $1.1 billion invested in the project; and (2) whether Congress, in approving the waterway, is sowing seeds for a future project to eliminate bottlenecks in the adjacent waterway. Neither waterway can reach Corps traffic projections without improvements. Congress may wish to explore alternative financing. A Corps study of the waterway showed a marginal, but satisfactory, benefit-cost ratio. The estimating practices used in the study may have been too liberal. Since the study was made, coal exports have increased which might increase movements on the waterway. If the waterway is completed, the Corps will have to propose an improvement project to Congress to eliminate traffic constraints caused by physical barriers and limited lock capacity. The Corps' budget estimate is reasonably accurate and includes proper inflation estimates. Land purchases to mitigate the loss of wildlife habitats will be submitted to Congress for approval. Regulations require that local sponsors perform, at their own expense, certain needed tasks and the states involved are expected to complete these tasks before the waterway opens. Operational and maintenance costs would be saved if the project were terminated, but funds would still be needed for such areas as upkeep and fire prevention for the remaining project. Congress should consider the investments which states and localities have made in anticipation of the waterway being completed.

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