Economic Significance

The economies of water transportation are clear: Products that are made from commodities shipped in bulk quantities would cost more without the option of river transportation.

The economies of water transportation are clear: Products that are made from commodities shipped in bulk quantities would cost more without the option of river transportation. Shipping by barge rather than by rail or truck reduces costs by an estimated $400 to $500 million each year—reductions that ease prices for consumers.

1 barge = 60 semi-trucks = 15 railcars

Soft drinks, ice cream, baked goods and pancake syrup, for example, are all sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup made from grain grown in the Midwest. Some of this corn is loaded onto barges and shipped down the upper Mississippi River, then up the Ohio River and eventually up the Tennessee River to a processing plant in Loudon, Tenn. Because a reliable, inexpensive river route is available, these goods—and many other consumer products—cost less.

Navigation has contributed greatly to the economic and industrial development of the Tennessee Valley as a whole. For example, the poultry industry in north Alabama would not have located where it did without water transportation. The economies of cities like Decatur and Chattanooga would not be as dynamic as they are today, were it not for the Tennessee River.

Substantial investments have been made in waterfront plants, terminals and distribution facilities all along the river. These industries provide direct employment for many thousands of residents of the TVA region. Thriving river traffic is a key ingredient in a healthy economic future for the region.

Ports and Terminals

River freight is handled at approximately 185 public- and private-use terminals at locations all across the Valley. The public-use terminals are equipped to handle a broad range of commodities and actively solicit business from a variety of shippers. Private-use terminals are designed for the specific needs of their owners and are usually equipped to handle only one kind of commodity, such as coal, grain or liquid chemicals.

The location of ports is determined mainly by centers of industrial activity. The busiest of these urban ports is Decatur, Ala. The Port of Decatur handles over five million tons of river freight annually, almost half of which consists of grains moving inbound to be processed into food products and animal feed.

Other major port areas in the Valley include Paducah and Calvert City, Ky.; Florence, Muscle Shoals, and Guntersville, Ala.; and Chattanooga and Lenoir City, Tenn. Commercial navigation connects these areas in ways that are critically important to the region’s economy, allowing industrial customers direct access to inexpensive shipping.

Eco-Friendly Transportation

Barges have big environmental benefits. One barge can ship as much tonnage as 60 semi-trucks or 15 railcars, which means that water transportation can reduce highway traffic, fuel consumption, air pollution, wear and tear on roads and the number of tires sent to landfills.