Backing off a plan to save $1 million a year, the government said Wednesday it will keep open a series of locks along the Chattahoochee River after a wave of criticism from politicians and boaters who feared a decision to severely limit operations would lead to a “landlocked” Columbus.
Instead of eliminating lock staffing as soon as this month and going to a by-appointment system, the Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday it will reduce staffed operations to four days a week starting this winter.
Commercial vessels haven’t powered up and down the Chattahoochee River in years - Columbus’s port hasn’t handled a barge since 2000 - and only a few hundred recreation boats each year ply the stretch between Columbus and the Gulf of Mexico.
After a nationwide review, the Corps identified the Chattahoochee locks as a place where it could cut costs. It planned this week to start operating the massive locks by appointment only for commercial traffic, a move that would also severely limit recreational boat traffic.
In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story last week, Corps spokeswoman Lisa Parker said the change was aimed to “stretch tax dollars.” The Corps had said it cost about $1 million to operate the locks with 7-day-a-week staffing.
Local officials and business leaders flooded the agency with complaints, worrying that the decision would effectively block any future ambitions to rebuild Columbus’s port activity or foster other development geared toward a navigable link to the Gulf 250 miles away.
U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop lobbied the agency to reconsider, and others warned it would dash any hopes of the city housing a long-planned marina.
The Corps will continue running the locks seven days a week through February, when they will switch to four days each week. Commercial barges would still have to make an appointment, but the locks will be made available for them at any time.
“There was a lot of criticism, a lot of feedback,” said Parker, who said Washington officials have approved Wednesday’s plan. She said it was designed to “benefit commercial traffic, non-commercial traffic and the communities along the river system.”
She could not say how much a four-day operation will save from current costs.
The move drew cheers from businesses that cater to river traffic. Joey Robinson, a manager at Outside World Outfitters in downtown Columbus, said the company helps people who want to paddle from Columbus to the Gulf of Mexico, about 250 miles downstream.
“There were quite a few people worried that it would be closed,” said Robinson. “Any time they decide to keep the river access open to the public, it’s a good thing. It would have been a shame to close that off to so many people.”
The federal government spent more than $100 million to build and maintain a system of dams and locks on the river system in the 1950s and 1960s. Millions more were spent each year straightening and dredging the river to clear the way for barges. But the commercial fleets once hoped to boost west Georgia’s economy never materialized.
River traffic peaked at 1.2 million tons in 1985, far off the 1.8 million mark the Corps once predicted. It steadily declined since then until reaching virtually nothing by 2006. Corps data shows that fewer than 300 boats traveled through the locks each year as well.
Watchdog groups have long made the route a favorite target, saying it cost as much as $20 million a year to maintain the shipping channel.
But the city’s boosters say the commercial demand is there if the Corps adequately maintains the shipping lane, which is impossible partly because Florida won’t allow the dredging of its 80-mile stretch. There’s a “frustrated demand for navigation that could exceed historic highs,” said Billy Houston, the head of a local trade group.
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the river is a “largely untapped resource for recreational use,” but she hopes that changes with a bigger emphasis on developing the city’s riverfront.
“Columbus is going to show the rest of the state that your rivers are huge economic resources,” she said. “And now that we’ve gotten this behind us, we can turn our sights back toward the river for our growth.”
A 2.5-mile whitewater rafting course along the river is being built, and city leaders have long sought to attract investors for a marina on the waterway with slips for hundreds of boats. That effort that would be doomed if those boats had no access to the Gulf, said Red McDaniel, a Columbus city councilman.
“They must have got our message that we just can’t afford closing it,” said McDaniel. “I don’t think anyone was going to invest $15 million to $20 million in a marina if you can’t get to the Gulf.”