The U.S. Corps of Engineers says some infrastructure on the navigable Arkansas River is becoming critically old, with a waterway official suggesting a modernization investment could run as much as $120 million.

A recent assertion by U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville (Okla.), that the locks along the Arkansas River navigational channel have a “50/50 chance of failing at any given day” may have come as a shock to some. But as numerous sources across the region have indicated, Mullins was correct about the need to get funding in place to keep commerce flowing along the Arkansas River from Catoosa, Okla., to the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas.

Martie Cenkci, chief of public affairs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said discussions were held as recently as last week in Fort Smith to discuss the future of the navigational system and what efforts could be taken to make the system a continually reliable source of water transportation.

“The locks are, in fact, approaching the end of their design life; it will require future investment by all parties to sustain and improve them,” she said.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is already planning hearings in September on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) to deal with funding of projects deemed vital by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and move projects from being studied to actually being implemented, if proven necessary.

“We are literally studying infrastructure projects to death. While it once took the Corps of Engineers three to five years to complete a study, it has now become the norm for this process to take 10 to 15 years,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, who chairs the committee. “The unwieldy review process remains tied up in red tape, costing us time and money and preventing action. Congress must change the way the Corps of Engineers does business.”

Gene Higginbotham, executive director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, said he has been in constant contact with the Arkansas Congressional delegation and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation as the groups seek to find a solution to the maintenance issues Mullin revealed last week.

According to Higginbotham, the situation highlighted along the Arkansas River is a priority for not only both states and their Congressional delegations, but also for the Corps, as he says the river’s navigational system is in need of between $100 million and $120 million in upgrades and maintenance.

“I’m working with my counterpart in the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to make sure our system is working. Of course, Oklahoma has only one river and we have five. But we’re addressing the operations and maintenance backlog. When (Mullin) was talking about 50% failure, (the Corps) have a critical maintenance backlog and it’s basically areas that they’ve identified that have at least a 50% failure over the next five years. Those have priority. So we make sure we keep our delegations educated so we can make sure we have a system that’s reliable.”

Higginbotham, who will testify before the General Assembly Joint Transportation Committee on Sept. 10 about the situation along the navigational system, said a failure of the lock system at any point along the river would not only matter to Arkansas and Oklahoma businesses and governments, but would matter to entities in neighboring states, as well.

“One of the things we’ve talked about is that (the Port of Catoosa) has a huge reach. They bring products in from Texas, Nebraska and Missouri,” he said. “So we’re reaching out to (members of Congress and Senators in those areas) to let them know that they use this system and their constituents use this system, as well. We’re making that effort to broaden the impact and show how this system as a regional economic impact on the nation.”

Working with the Corps, Higgenbotham said a three-year maintenance plan has been proposed which would work with the shipping industry to adjust barge movements so needed maintenance could take place with minimal disruption to the flow of goods up and down river. But that plan only works if a bill is passed that takes care of not only funding but also the red tape mentioned by Gibbs.

“With this schedule, they can focus that budget, even if it’s declining, they can focus on the most needed projects. I have to talk to the (State Joint) Transportation Committee on this. With the declining budget, there is a gap in what the federal government can do and what we need. There are some things that are in the WRRDA that is on the House side. I get to brief the legislators on that on Sept. 10. We just have to figure out a way and it may come from private funding. It’s just figuring out the difference between what the federal government can provide and we we need.”

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Ryan Saylor

Ryan Saylor

Ryan Saylor is the Fort Smith metro reporter for The City Wire, a content partner with Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached by email at RSaylor@TheCityWire.com or follow him on Twitter: @TheRyanSaylor.