story by Aric Mitchell and Michael Tilley
Bob Null of the Western Arkansas Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) announced at the group’s monthly meeting that the $15 million slack water harbor project will happen.
While details for where the harbor will go are still unclear, the U.S. Corps of Engineers approved the public announcement, and a follow-up meeting will occur to further detail the project.
RITA Intermodal Project Manager Mat Pitsch speculated as to the purpose of the planned Feb. 22 meeting: “If I had to put my best-guess hat on, we’re going to talk about the site and how funding moves forward, and we’re probably going to see the three-dimensional design. This board has done a great job to make this happen.”
Five areas the Corps of Engineers is considering for the harbor are “the area around 8th Street (Fort Smith),” Chaffee Crossing, Vache Grasse Public Use Area in Lavaca, The Landing at Ozark, and Highway 59 “on the north side of the river,” Pitsch said.
Also announced at the meeting were plans for a 12-Foot Channel Forum, to be held Monday, March 5, at the Riverfront Events Center. There, Pitsch noted, Arkansas Land Commissioner John Thurston and the Oklahoma Land Commission Board “will ask for open dialog from businesses,” on how the 12-foot channel should move forward. RITA, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), Arkansas Oklahoma Port Operators Association (AOPOA), and all local and state elected officials “are on the invite list,” Pitsch said.
“The idea is for Oklahoma and Arkansas to get a focus on the 12-foot channel because three weeks later, those two entities (Arkansas and Oklahoma land commissioners) are going to Washington, D.C., with the powers that be to let them know how badly we need that 12-foot channel. When business owners do something like this, it’s usually because they have a vested interest. When land commissioners go and ask for something, they’re doing so with the idea that it truly is for the greater good,” Pitsch said.
Van Buren Advertising & Promotion Commission Executive Director Maryl Koeth told The City Wire in a previous interview that Thurston has been a supporter of efforts by the Arkansas River Connections to raise awareness of the river’s economic potential.
“When the board members of the Arkansas River Connections planned the Arkansas River Revival flotilla last year the message we wanted to deliver to the people of Arkansas was that the Arkansas River is an untapped resource that can bring jobs and revenue to our state,” Koeth explained, adding that boosting tourism assets with docks and marinas is also a goal of the group.
Continuing, Koeth said: “Commissioner of State Lands John Thurston has been a strong supporter for all efforts to increase the use of the Arkansas River for economic development for our state.”
Also, a spring conference is being planned as a follow-up to 2011’s Arkansas River Revival Flotilla.
The Corps of Engineers estimates that a 12-foot channel could increase tonnage capacity on the Arkansas River by up to 45 million tons a year.
INTERSTATE 49 BRIDGE
Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Pitsch tasked the board with focusing on the addition of 13 miles of road to connect Alma with Barling. The estimated $300 million project would include a bridge to connect Interstate traffic located east of the Highway 59 bridge. The estimated cost for the new bridge is currently at $185 million, though Pitsch cautioned not to put too much importance on the numbers.
“I’m leery about those numbers because you just don’t know until you build it. If you don’t start a project for more than three years, the prices keep inflating so a $300 million project could become a $400 million project. To give you an idea, this same bridge was first quoted to me as $80 million about six and a half years ago,” Pitsch said.
The remaining $115 million estimate would go primarily to the 13-mile stretch between Alma and Barling.
Pitsch is excited about the possibilities, considering that “in just two and a half years” RITA’s endorsements have helped to move along the Bella Vista bypass and I-49 construction at Chaffee Crossing, he said.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of RITA will take place April 11.