Dredging funding must be found

Published 12:15 am Sunday, February 26, 2012

One of the main factors industrial prospects consider when locating their business in a community is access. Goods manufactured here have to be able to be delivered cost efficiently to the next stop in manufacturing process or to the end consumer.

While Dallas County is not situated on an interstate highway, we are blessed to have U.S. Highway 80, a four-lane highway that, sans a small section near Cuba, spans from Interstate 65 to Interstate 20/59. Such a transportation corridor has been instrumental in landing many of the industries we have in Dallas County and is used daily by thousands of people looking for an east-to-west route across southwest central Alabama.

What’s equally important to our transportation infrastructure, but massively underutilized, is the Alabama River. For years a coalition of local industrialists, business people, elected officials and economic developers have fought to keep the Alabama River open to barge traffic throughout the year, but it’s been a battle that is getting harder and harder to win.

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The Alabama River, during times of drought and at certain times of the year, is not navigable due to its 305-mile river channel being filled with silt or the lowering of the water level. In order to stay navigable, the channel must be at least 9-feet deep and 200-feet wide to allow efficient barge traffic. The shallower the channel, the less tonnage can be shipped on barges due to the reduced draft of the vessels. And the less tonnage shipped, the harder it is to get federal funds to dredge the channel, thus keeping the navigation channel open year round. As you can see, it becomes a “chicken or the egg” situation.

Recently, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby spoke on the matter saying “I think it would be a shame for the river to silt up and it will hurt economic development,” he said, addressing citizens of Selma during a recent town hall meeting. “I guess people will say, ‘well, gosh, if you had all these jobs, we would do the river.’ But you have got to have the infrastructure before industries even think about coming to see you.”

Shelby went on to say if the Republicans gain control of the U.S. Senate in November he may be put in charge of the subcommittee that funds the Corps of Engineers, the federal organization responsible for maintaining our river system.

“I’ll do everything I can,” he said in response to a request to help secure dredging funds. “I wish I were in a position today to tell you we would do it but I can’t say that.”

Another advocate of the Alabama River navigation issue is the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association (CARIA), which, according to their website, is a not-for-profit organization that believes in “promoting the economic and social value of Alabama’s inland waterways and reservoirs.”

CARIA has lobbied for years to keep dredging funding intact, but it has become harder and harder as tonnage has dropped and federal dredging funds have dried up.

CAIRA believes, as do I, that river channel funding must become a priority, and not one that is the result of a “hat in hand” visit to Washington every year. Having an un-navigable river year round deprives one of the most economically challenged regions of the state a development tool it badly needs. While not a “magic bullet,” it would be another tool to help transform the Black Belt of Alabama from a region of historically high unemployment and poverty to a self-perpetuating economic development prospect that rises on the list of possible locations for industries who value, and need, river travel to decrease their transportation costs.

Keeping the river channel open also reduces large truck traffic on an already overburdened highway system, reduces fuel consumption and the emissions that result from such creates a “greener” transportation system that better serves the industrial partners in this region.

I hope our congressional delegation will see the value in keeping the channel open year round and give our state and local economic development officials the tools they need to better sell this region of the state to industrial prospects.