story and photos by Ryan Saylor
On the day when the Port of Fort Smith officially opened its new railroad tracks to the public, its operator was full of thankfulness for the grant the port received from the state of Arkansas to replace aging rail lines.
Marty Shell, president and CEO of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and the operator of the Ports of Fort Smith and Van Buren, said it was only with money from the state that the project was been completed.
"We are just showing our appreciation to Sen. (Jake) Files, Sen. (Bruce) Holland, Rep. (George) McGill, and Rep. (Stephanie) Malone. They brought state dollars into the Fort Smith River Valley area for infrastructure needs. So we are showing our appreciation to them for getting that money for us to get that done,” Shell said.
Files, a Republican senator from Fort Smith, said it was a bi-partisan effort by Fort Smith's delegation in the General Assembly that made the replacement of the railroad line at the port possible.
"This funding in particular came from general improvement funds. And it was important – all the representatives and senators from this area deemed it important enough (for funding). We were going to lose jobs and future opportunities for jobs if something wasn't done,” Files explained.
In all, the grant from the state's general improvement funds provided $83,000 in funding "to re-do the railroad tracks at the port of Fort Smith," Shell said. "The tracks were 43-years-old. We put in new tracks at the port back in December.”
Shell echoed Files' explanation that jobs were at stake if the nearly half-century old tracks were not replaced.
"The Port of Fort Smith, especially for the entire Fort Smith region, it's a public port. To have intermodal facilities, it's vital to the region to retain jobs and attract jobs. It's important for the economy. To revamp the rail, that helps us continue with our rail growth."
According to statistics provided by Shell, when his company took over operations of the port, there was no rail traffic operating at the facility. He said as of last year, the number had jumped to 417 rail cars that had traveled through the port's facility and that number should continue to increase with the new tracks.
"The old tracks couldn't handle the traffic we were putting through there. With their help, we were able to put the new track down."
With the new track, Shell is already planning for the future of business operations at the port.
"The plan for the future is to continue the growth for the port with truck, barge and rail. But putting these new rails in, it gave us another 20 to 30 years (before we need additional rail enhancements). Without those four individuals and the city of Fort Smith and the port, we wouldn't see the growth and the rail for that facility. It was a very good thing to happen for this area."
Part of the growth plans, Shell said, include a new 30,000-square-foot warehouse facility in coming years, but he said he couldn't plan on expansion before the rails were replaced.
Files said more growth is likely to come to the river in the coming years, thanks to legislation he and others in the legislature sponsored and pushed through during the 2013 session.
"I was the lead sponsor of a bill we passed to form a tax credit for waterways … to go to public and private entities to do more development along the river. We've got a tremendous opportunity to be a major player in transportation. It's been overlooked."
He specifically mentioned the dredging of the Arkansas River to create a 12-foot deep channel, among many other needs along the river.
"I was encouraged (by the bill's passage)," he said, adding that projects like what was shown to the public Thursday (April 24) would continue happening in the years to come and would be an important part of the state's economy.
"What's good for Fort Smith is good for Arkansas," Files said.