While the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway has paid off handsomely for the region and the nation, it has done so in ways not envisioned by its original proponents, a study shows.

The waterway originally was pushed by Southern politicians and business interests as a barge express to haul thousands of tons of goods a year. Critics called the plan a dubious attempt to clone the Mississippi River.Indeed, projections were made that within five years, 28 million tons of goods a year would move down the waterway, but actual traffic has never even come close to that.

While tonnage on the waterway has increased steadily the past few years, it still only reached 7.9 million tons a year in 1994, up from 4.7 million tons in 1990, but a fraction of original projections.

Barge traffic, however, has little economic impact on surrounding communities and counties, because most of the traffic is straight-through from point of origin to point of destination.

Where the waterway has generated revenue is in jobs and business created by industry locating along the waterway, said Don Hines, president of the University of West Alabama.

Mr. Hines reported the findings of the study to delegates attending the 13th annual Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Opportunities Conference last week.

The study was conducted by Paul Garner of the University of West Alabama and Mac Holmes of Troy State University. It analyzed the economic impact on three areas: the counties bordering the waterway; the states those counties are in (Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee); and the continental United States.

The study took into account direct economic impact (jobs created by industry); indirect impact (sales made possible by the waterway); and induced impact (spending by employees). It also measured port and terminal operations and recreation and tourism.

The total economic impact for 1994: for the immediate area, 18,867 jobs paying $484.5 million in wages and benefits; for the four-state area, 22,275 jobs paying $583.4 million; for the continental United States, 43,222 jobs paying $1.164 billion.

Mr. Hines said the figures are conservative.

"This is a good, solid study that shows how beneficial and significant the waterway has been to us."