Both U.S. political parties need to support more infrastructure spending, including for the inland waterways and recognize that barge transportation can provide major cost savings compared to truck and rail, according to Kimbra Scott, port director, Port of Muskogee, Oklahoma.
In an interview with AJOT, Scott said that the investment in infrastructure “is a priority regardless of what your political view is, and it is in the best interest of everyone and in the national interest of the United States …. And that is a message that we carry with us … every time we're going to D.C. …. The bigger task that we … stakeholders need to do is a better job at showing what the economic impact is of the waterway and how efficient it is to use barge transportation versus truck and railroads.”
Scott acknowledged the support of the Arkansas Oklahoma Port Operators Association and Marty Shell, president of Five Rivers Distribution, Van Buren, Arkansas.
Scott said the Port of Muskogee and inland ports in Arkansas and Oklahoma are still recovering from the effects of catastrophic flooding in 2019 which shut down barge traffic for six months on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) linking the ports to the Mississippi River.
Scott said extremely heavy rains hit the Arkansas River upstream of Keystone Dam during late May and early June 2019. So much water poured into the Keystone Reservoir in a short time that it quickly became evident that a major release of water would be needed to prevent overtopping the dam and causing devastating floods downstream. Water rushed downstream toward MKARNS at such a high rate that officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (U.S.A.C.E.) halted barge traffic. By October, barge traffic was allowed on a limited basis. However, the flood carried so much silt down river that dredging would be required to return to normal operations.
In 2022, the Port won a major investment to repair and modernize its facilities when the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) awarded it $23.9 million through the Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP) supported by a $10 million matching grant from the State of Oklahoma.
PIDP grants support efforts by ports and industry stakeholders to improve port and related freight infrastructure to meet the nation’s freight transportation needs. In Fiscal Year 2023, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) appropriated $450 million to the PIDP, according to MARAD.
Scott said, “The grant will go for a new main dock. It will be for a new heavy lift dock. It will be for dockside rail as well as a new warehouse. Those operations are very important to what we do. During 2019 flooding the rail dock … sank down …”
The result was that the Port was “forced to operate at a limited capacity … the damage to the main cargo wharf poses a safety hazard and caused structural capacity limitations after the 2019 flood.”
The PIDP grant “will replace all elements of the cargo wharf including the deck and … substructure. And it will improve the resiliency of the berthing system by installing a protective edge. The new heavy lift dock will allow us to maintain those operations while we're making those improvements to the main cargo wharf. Soil washed out from the flood resulted in critical infrastructure damage to the Port warehouses. This project will include a 36,000 square foot warehouse to help us maintain those operations for a variety of operational needs moving forward.”
Major improvements are being made to the inland waterway system led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect against a repeat of the 2019 flooding. At the Port of Muskogee, the elevation to protect against flooding has been raised by three feet: “We're building everything in the Port higher than ... we have in the past. That's the reason why there's so much emphasis put on all these grants. We're bringing in about $58 million into the Port for new improvements including a levee as well as waterfront improvements ... To do all of this takes the partnerships that we have, not only in D.C. but also here at the State level. And one of the most important partnerships is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Backlog of Critical Maintenance
Scott says the Corps is improving its communications to alert the public to flooding threats and has been working closely with the ports to make improvements. One is to address the backlog of critical maintenance: “In 2017 the current value of this unfunded maintenance was approximately $150 million. Since then, it has grown … I think it's pushing $300 million today … the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers defines ‘critical’ as those items of deferred maintenance that have a 50% probability of failing within the next five years.”
The second priority “was the development and implementation to a solution to the Three Rivers area structure. That is down at the confluence of the … Arkansas and White Rivers. It is a manmade structure; it was failing, and it needed to be re-engineered. Failure of the structure would have resulted in the loss of navigation on the entire system … We have been successful … bringing more money into our system to address this.” The project includes $109.147 million for work on the “Three Rivers” project to control flooding and erosion near the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers.
The third priority is “deepening the navigation channel from nine feet to 12 feet. So that would be obviously an increase of three feet of authorized depth, allowing barges to be loaded as much as 30% more, making the most efficient mode of transportation even more efficient.”
Scott says the Port is a transportation hub for steel products: “We move a lot of steel on our waterway. We move a lot of rock … we move liquid feed on the waterway. …We move coils, rebar, a lot of steel. They also move the parts for the turbines, the wind turbines on the waterway. There's just a lot of different commodities that move.”
© Copyright 1999–2023 American Journal of Transportation. All Rights Reserved