ABOARD THE M/V MISSISSIPPI — Cruising up the Arkansas River on the largest inland towboat in America makes it easier to visualize the impact waterway commerce can have on the economy.
Out of sight and mind for most people, the Arkansas River’s 445-mile McClellan-Kerr Navigation System saw about $4 billion in materials moved over its waters in 2013.
Mostly iron and steel, chemical fertilizers, sand, gravel and rock, the “liquid highway” kept more than 12 million tons of materials off the roadways last year in what Col. Courtney W. Paul of the U.S. Corps of Engineers calls a more efficient and economical means of transportation.
“Businesses want to get their products to the water as fast as possible because they know it saves them money,” Paul said Friday during a tour along the Arkansas River.
According to the Arkansas Waterways Association, it costs 97 cents per ton mile to ship goods by water, $2.53 per ton mile to ship by rail and $5.35 per ton mile by truck. One 9-foot-deep barge can hold 60 truckloads worth of material, and while the M/V Mississippi can push 25 of those 1,000-ton barges, the three-hour tour Friday from the James W. Trimble Lock 13 at Barling to the Garrison Bridge in Fort Smith was only carrying 70 local guests.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa District will offer the public a tour of the M/V Mississippi docked at the Port of Muskogee 6-7 p.m. Saturday. The Corps is wrapping up its tour of the McClellan-Kerr as part of a string of public meetings and inspections with the Mississippi River Commission oversight group.
The tour will reach the Pine Bluff area on Thursday. It will travel from 10:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. from Charles D. Maynard Lock and Dam near Wright to Emmett Sanders Lock and Dam at Pine Bluff and then continue from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. from Emmett Sanders to Joe Hardin Lock and Dam downstream of Pine Bluff.
Increasing tonnage on the MKARNS is a long-running regional goal that saw advancement when, in late May, the House and Senate approved a $12.3 billion bill that authorized 34 dredging, flood control and maintenance projects.
The national waterways bill may have helped push along the $23 million Fort Smith/Van Buren-area slackwater harbor project by increasing the Corps’ harbor threshold from $7 million to $10 million. But with the government in a pinch for cash, private business investment is likely needed to build the harbor and make infrastructure improvements, Matt Sagely of The Normandy Group told the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority in June.
A mid-1990s study to estimate the cost of deepening the “choke points” on the Arkansas was in the $186 million range, said Mat Pitsch, executive director of the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority and state representative District 76-elect.
Plenty of talk Friday morning on the M/V Mississippi among the local business and community leaders centered around the deepening of the river and a slackwater harbor in the Fort Smith/Van Buren area. At least one businessman from out of state took in the river tour to gauge business interest and feasibility.
Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack said the slackwater project is being seen as “feasible.”
A long-running regional effort has been made for many years to increase the Arkansas River’s minimum depth to 12 feet. Three choke points include those near Russellville, Conway and the Three Rivers area where the White, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers meet.
Deepening the river to the minimum 12-foot mark would increase the amount of material Arkansas River barges can carry by almost 50 percent, says Marty Shell, president of Five Rivers Distribution in Van Buren and the Port of Fort Smith. The deepening would help the Fort Smith region become a bigger player among mid-America’s shipping ports, especially as the Interstate 49 project comes closer to completion, he added.
“With all that’s in this area, there’s no reason that we cannot be a Memphis, a Catoosa or a Little Rock or something in that nature,” Shell said. “We just need to keep plowing away and working hard. It doesn’t fall on deaf ears. It just take a long time to get it done. But, we owe it to the citizens of this region to make sure we keep on trying to create jobs and retain jobs in this area.”
John Balgavy, a professional engineer and program manager with the Corps, said the McClellan-Kerr is one of the most reliable waterways in America with “99 percent availability.” There are 18 lock and dams along the lower Arkansas River, beginning in Catoosa and ending at Montgomery Point, that help the Corps control the river’s depth and flow.
“Transportation is a fickle industry,” Balgavy said. “If they can take a nickle off per ton on a certain route, they’re going to take it.”