After eight years of study, it’s ‘now or never’ for efforts to build Fort Smith regional intermodal facility

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,074 views 

The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (formerly known as the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority, or RITA) has just turned eight years old and is facing increasing pressure to produce a result that might blossom into an intermodal facility.

With funding of more than $1.6 million, the organization has collected $1.285 million of that total since becoming legally recognized in September 2011. Donating entities include the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren, counties of Crawford and Sebastian, and the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) and state funding.

The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (WAIA) traces its roots to 2009 when the four governments of Crawford, Sebastian, Fort Smith, and Van Buren, formed an organization christened RITA to focus on the area’s need for transportation improvements to support economic development and the movement of goods and freight by road, rail, water, and air.

Prior to its formation, the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPDD) received an intermodal grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) in September 2009 for $243,750 and in August 2010 for $81,250 totaling $325,000 in state funding for the purposes of enhancing intermodal transportation services and facilities in the area. Three of the four local entities contributed $75,000 ($25,000 each). From the resulting $400,000, WAPDD transferred an unspent balance of $60,366 to WAIA/RITA in 2011. WAPDD assumed administrative responsibilities for the organization and has remained in the role ever since.

WAIA began financial operations in September 2011, as it was then a completely formed and recognized legal entity eligible to receive funding, the first of which came from an AEDC grant award on Sept. 22, 2011 of $142,857. The organization does not employ personnel thus salaries are not incurred expenditures. However, it does contract with WAPDD for the administration of operations – an $11,000 monthly expense.

WAPDD in turn has an agreement with consultant and State Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, for $7,400 per month. Pitsch also has a $40,188 annual salary as a legislator, and in 2016 received $29,975 in per diem and other expenses from the Arkansas House of Representatives. He also received $8,103 in support of travel, meals and other items for legislative related events outside the state.

The payment to Pitsch is subject to reduction while he serves during legislative sessions every two years, though WAPDD did not include the amount of those reductions in a statistical breakdown provided to Talk Business & Politics. The remaining $3,600 is utilized by WAPDD for administrative staff and office support to WAIA.

In previous years, WAIA has spent the money on consultants, studies, and contractual services in the amount of $145,100 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers receiving the largest share ($108,000), The Normandy Group receiving the second largest ($20,100), and CRS Advance, LLC the last ($17,000). The largest expense came in the first portion of 2017 when the funding bodies agreed to hire Vickerman & Associates for a thorough study and request for expressions of interest (RFEIs) to have an intermodal facility privately funded. Vickerman is charging WAIA $200,050 and expects to have RFEIs out for consideration by the first part of 2018.

In 2012, the governing bodies voted to sign a cost-sharing agreement with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with the feasibility phase of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Port (formerly known as Lavaca Slackwater Harbor). That report was completed in December 2013.

Despite the fact there are no guarantees with Vickerman’s efforts, city leaders remain bullish. Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman told Talk Business & Politics the issue at the forefront of WAIA has been the port “and individuals either forget or are unaware of the previous studies and competing interests for a potential port.”

“WAIA was able to unite the regional entities and take on the task to work with the Corps of Engineers to develop the initial Port study. A significant amount of the WAIA funding was used for that purpose. It was as a result of that study that the current project (Vickerman study) emerged and is another step forward in the process. The feedback that we receive will guide the future direction of WAIA. We cannot forget, however, that WAIA is also focused on the Arkansas River navigation system and its challenges as well as the future of I-49.”

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken told Talk Business he could “only speak to the time since being hired, but I am pleased with the work we’ve done.”

“I may be a bit biased since I am on the WAIA board, but the cooperation between the four government entities and the FCRA shows that we are thinking and working together as a region. Not only do the WAIA board members think this way, but so do the Directors, Board Members, JP’s, and Councilors. How else would the funding for the contract with Vickerman been approved without the commitment of $40,000 from each of the five entities?”

Geffken said Vickerman has been involved with more than two-thirds of the major deep water ports in the United States and several international ports.

“He has the knowledge and experience to help us realize the potential of the inland port. The worst thing for us would have been to do nothing with the Army Corps report and let it gather dust on a shelf. That would be akin to standing still which actually means falling behind. None of us want that,” Geffken said.

At a Fort Smith Board of Directors meeting on Feb. 7, Director Tracy Pennartz showed hesitation in moving forward since the already cash-strapped city had not set aside any funds for the Vickerman expense in the 2017 budget. But as Director Keith Lau then noted, “it’s a small investment for a potentially large return.” Pennartz joined Lau, the other five directors, and Geffken in agreeing it was “now or never.”

Vickerman has worked as consultant on 67 of the 90 North American deep water ports, including two of the largest in New Orleans and Chicago. At the study’s end, Vickerman hopes to find a developer, who would then theoretically bear the cost of building any resulting infrastructure.

If RFEIs fail to attract a viable developer, the city would “reconsider its support,” Geffken said to the Board’s agreement at the Feb. 7 meeting. The RFEI process will run for an additional nine months after the study is complete, giving WAIA until around August 2018 to produce a plan.

WAIA has received mostly equal donations from the cities and Sebastian County. Fort Smith donated $254,025 starting in 2013 with a $50,000 contribution, repeating in 2014, and then lowering to $37,025 in 2015, $37,000 in 2016, and $80,000 YTD for 2017.

Van Buren and Sebastian County followed much the same pattern with $3,000 higher contributions in 2016 for a total of $257,025 each over a period just north of 4.5 years. Additionally, Van Buren was able to apply a grant from the Public Facilities Board (PFB) in the amount of $50,000 to the tally. The PFB funding was part of Van Buren’s cost share for a previous Corps of Engineers study, and was earmarked “Federal Funds for Port of Van Buren studies,” said Mayor Freeman.

Crawford County and FCRA rounded out the donations with $142,500 and $75,050, respectively.

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