WAIA director resigns; officials to consider next steps for intermodal study

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,551 views 

Steel shipments at the Port of Fort Smith.

The effort to build an intermodal port in the Fort Smith metro has received $3.17 million in government funds and spent or obligated at least $2.9 million since 2019. While nothing has been built or announced, proponents believe the effort has been worth the money and should continue.

The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (WAIA) was launched in 2009 as the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) by the four governments of Crawford and Sebastian counties and the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren. The purpose was to study and act on the region’s need for transportation infrastructure to improve and expand the ability to manage the movement of goods and freight by road, rail, water, and air.

In 2011 WAIA was formed when the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPDD) was tapped to manage the authority. Mat Pitsch, who served in the Arkansas House of Representatives and Arkansas Senate between 2015 and 2022, was tapped as lead consultant on the project and then WAIA executive director. Pitsch, who campaigned in 2021 and early 2022 in a failed bid to be elected Arkansas Treasurer, resigned on Jan. 9 after taking a job in the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, said WAPPD Executive Director Sasha Grist.

Since 2009 and 2022, Pitsch received $1.157 million in salary and reimbursements from the $3.17 million in government funding – or 36.5% of the total. During his years in the legislature, Pitsch received at least $60,000 yearly in legislative pay and reimbursements.

Following are amounts the project has received from each government source since 2009, according to information from WAPDD.
• U.S. Treasury/U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration: $301,275
• State of Arkansas/Arkansas Economic Development Commission: $842,857
• Arkansas Department of Transportation: $450,000
• City of Fort Smith: $420,350
• City of Van Buren/Van Buren Public Facilities Board: $473,350
• Crawford County: $258,825
• Sebastian County: $423,350

The WAIA fund ended 2022 with a balance of $208,271.

Grist believes the effort has generated interest and potential for agreements with intermodal operation companies and grants and other funding for regional port and other transportation improvements. She’s interested finding another WAIA director, but that will be a decision of the WAIA Board. The board is set to meet Wednesday (Jan. 18).

“I really want to take our time, do our research, and find the right fit. I want to find someone with economic development experience, but also has the background on intermodal and ports,” Grist told Talk Business & Politics.

If the WAIA board agrees, she plans to solicit input from “contacts the authority has made through ports, railroads, economic development (groups) … and see if they have any names” of potential directors.

Grist points to a planned April 12 roundtable as one reason the effort should continue in some form. She and WAPPD staff are working to bring to the region officials with the Maritime Administration (MARAD) of the U.S. Department of Transportation. A focus of MARAD is to “support the technical aspects of America’s maritime transportation infrastructure — things like ships and shipping, port and vessel operations, national security, environment, and safety.” Grist said the event will also include tours of regional ports and other transportation infrastructure.

“To ensure the discussion of diverse strategies and ideas, we have developed a draft agenda, sought speakers and panelists from the Maritime Administration, the University of Arkansas Fayetteville’s Maritime Transportation Research and Education Center, the University of Arkansas Fayetteville’s College of Engineering, the Arkansas Waterways Commission, the Inland Rivers, Ports, and Terminal Facilities, along with regional and local port operators,” Grist noted in an email.

The roundtable is part of an effort by WAIA and WAPPD to have the region receive a preferred MARAD designation.

“Projects can be funded that represent concepts for new services or the expansion of existing marine highway services that have the potential to offer public benefits and long-term sustainability without long-term federal support. The designation gives each applicant preferential treatment for any future federal assistance,” Grist wrote.

Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, is glad Pitsch has resigned and has not been a fan of the project in recent years. However, he does support giving Grist and WAPDD staff more time on the project. Shell is working with Grist on potential MARAD grants.

“WAIA still has merit for grant writing for this region for economic growth, and I know that Sasha, Ashley (Garris), and Reese (Brewer) will work hard to promote those objectives. I hope the Quorum Courts of both counties and the city of Fort Smith and Van Buren will give them a chance to right the ship since their last captain jumped ship and left the whole project in limbo,” said Shell, whose company operates the Port of Fort Smith and a private port facility in Van Buren. “I feel it’s necessary to finally say we made a mistake, but let’s correct it and move forward with positive growth for the region and let’s support the development of this region with strong leadership and own up to the challenges we face and deal with it head-on.”

Shell isn’t the only person to object to the push for a new intermodal facility. In 2017, Eric Lind said he and others with port and river experience tried to tell city and county officials that pushing for an intermodal port was a fool’s errand. Lind worked for 18 years in the dredging and marine construction business as a manager, dredge captain and licensed river pilot.

“The concept of a major intermodal river port located in the Fort Smith/Van Buren/Lavaca area is not viable,” Lind said at the time. “It is difficult to imagine any potential value for any shipper or transportation company serving this market area in sufficient volume to warrant investment in a dedicated intermodal river port.”

Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports efforts to explore new infrastructure but also said work should also include investments in existing infrastructure.

“Economic development on any level is beneficial to the region. We support all of the area’s agencies working to expand our infrastructure to better attract new business, including the concept of the intermodal port operation the region has been pursuing for the past several years. But equally as important, we also are proponents of backing existing businesses and encourage funding of those partners. Working together to grow the region is everyone’s goal and we always advocate strengthening our existing port operations, specifically the Port of Van Buren and the Port of Fort Smith,” Allen noted in a statement.

Pitsch believes the effort has had a positive impact on the region.

“It was an honor to be a part of the regional group known as the Western Arkansas Intermodal Association team and the partnerships that we’ve been able to build as the region moves toward the development of an intermodal port and other types of Transportation Infrastructure. Ancillary projects that we’ve been able to affect, like the coming expansion of I-49, regional transportation infrastructure projects, etc., have positioned Western Arkansas well for the future,” Pitsch noted in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.