12-foot channel not on funding list

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 241 views 

A United States Congressional moratorium on earmarks has placed the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) 12-foot channel project on indefinite hold.

The MKARNS 12-foot channel project is part of a multi-state effort to improve barge traffic by deepening the MKARNS to 12 feet from areas that are currently at a depth of only nine.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers estimates that a 12-foot channel could increase tonnage capacity on the river by up to 45 million tons a year. Record tonnage on the river system was in 2006 with 14.011 million tons. The Corps has previously said a 12-foot depth has been authorized, but money has not been made available.

John Thurston, the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands (COSL), submitted a letter to Regional Intermodal Transportation Association (RITA) board members on Wednesday (April 18) that detailed the challenges the project will face moving forward.

Thurston’s letter states that the “moratorium prohibits Congress from specifying that money be spent on a particular project. However, federal law demands that federal projects require federal budgets before beginning construction.”

The letter continues: “Without earmarks, Congress agrees to a total budget amount and the President’s administration determines guidelines and sets priorities. In a list of 50 projects to be completed over the next 20 years, we are not even on that list.”

Much will hinge on what happens “when the earmark ban is supposed to be renewed,” Thurston writes, before admitting “no one can predict” what will happen in such an instant.

“These are our challenges. But now we also see our opportunities more clearly,” Thurston added.

One such opportunity Thurston encouraged, reiterated by COSL Chief Deputy Bill Huffman at Tuesday’s meeting, is that RITA and other Arkansas entities interested in deepening the channel work more closely with Oklahoma to align goals.

“With so many challenges facing our leadership in the nation’s capitol, we should prove our leadership here at home by taking these challenges and creatively working to solve them,” Thurston wrote.

Thurston’s letter continued: “We will be exploring how we can accomplish this and I respectfully suggest that we work together to form an association between Arkansas and Oklahoma.”

Huffman said that “re-sequencing the project,” or deciding how the different phases are implemented, will be another key to keeping the 12-foot channel project alive.

“We’re working with our delegation and with the Corps to find language that might allow us to re-sequence how we handle this project,” Huffman told RITA members.

Despite the news, RITA Intermodal Project Manager Mat Pitsch is still encouraged.

“Well, it’s a 12-foot channel. Did we think we were going to get everything done in one meeting? No. But I’m excited about it. Not that it’s a done deal, but we found some things out about the way they (Congress) think,” Pitsch said.

Pitsch continued: “I hadn’t even heard about the re-sequencing thing until this meeting. Now we can go to our Congressional delegation and say, ‘What would it take to re-sequence? Is it even possible? Because we’ve heard from a member of our team you might consider that, while before you wouldn’t consider that. It’s another visit to Washington.”

When asked about the “50 projects” list Thurston said the 12-foot channel was not on, Pitsch said, “They (Congress) know they’ve got to help us somehow. We’ve got some real infrastructure issues coming up in 2014 with the widening of the Panama Canal. And the last thing you want to do is put a barge in somewhere and it’s three-fourths full.”

In the end, Pitsch believes the “whole key” to working through channel issues “is not what you as a region want, but the greater good. Putting more freight moving for less price is the greater good. They know it. We know it. Now we have to find a way to make it happen.”