Federal grant to fund most of $18.8 million slackwater harbor in Van Buren

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,319 views 

Rendering of planned slackwater harbor in Van Buren.

An infrastructure project officials have pursued for decades will soon be built. The River Valley Slackwater Harbor project on the Arkansas River in Crawford County will receive a $15.096 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD).

The grant, announced Friday (Nov. 3) by MARAD, will provide a majority of funding to build a slackwater harbor off the main channel of the Arkansas River that will be approximately 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide and have the capacity to moor and offload up to eight barges at a time. The harbor will have roughly 2,000 feet of dock frontage with a 50-foot-wide concrete deck for mobile cranes. (Link here for a PDF of the slackwater harbor application.)

The grant will also fund design services and project management. The new harbor will enhance reliability of the port because it will be less susceptible to operational disruptions and damage resulting from fluctuations in the flow rate of the river, according to MARAD. The harbor will increase barge handling capacity of the port and will improve port resilience because the concrete deck will be constructed above the 100-year flood level to ensure year-round operation even in the face of flooding events, noted the MARAD statement.

MARAD announced Friday more than $653 million to fund 41 port improvement projects across the nation under the Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP). The funding will help grow capacity and increase efficiency at coastal seaports, Great Lakes ports, and inland river ports. The slackwater harbor in Van Buren was the only Arkansas project among the 41.

Funds for the 41 projects came from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was pushed by President Joe Biden and approved by Congress in late 2021. None of the six members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation voted for the Act.

The River Valley Slackwater Harbor project was a joint application with the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (WAIA) and Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution. Five Rivers also operates the port of Fort Smith. As the lead applicant, WAIA is responsible for the financial administration and grant oversight for the project. Five Rivers, as the project recipient, will serve as the project manager, directing the scope, schedule, and budget: including the preconstruction, construction, technical, and engineering efforts, according to the grant application.

Marty Shell, president of Five Rivers Distribution, said the real stars in getting the grant are Sasha Grist, Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPDD) executive director, Ashley Garris, WAPDD assistant executive director/director of economic development, and Reese Brewer, WAPDD MPO director.

Location of planned slackwater harbor in Van Buren.

“This has been a vision and project for over 20 years or so. They were able to get the funding and make this happen,” Shell said.

The slackwater harbor project will be located on a man-made channel off the Arkansas River at Five Rivers Terminal in Crawford County, near Van Buren. It will be a major economic tool for the region that will allow for combined shipping through rail, highway, air and river transportation, Shell said.

“This will allow the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce and the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce and the cities to really sell this region as a shipping hub,” Shell said.

The entire slackwater harbor project is expected to cost $18.87 million with matching funds WAIA responsible to contribute the remaining $3.774 million. Little Rock built a similar slackwater harbor in the 1980s, though it did not really “take off” until the late 1990s and early 2000s, Shell said.

“It’ll take this one some time to grow business,” Shell said.

Shell said the next step will be to start getting contractors and construction managers for the project, as well as complete due diligence and get needed environmental studies. He says he believes it will take all of 2024 to complete the necessary advance studies and requirements but thinks construction can begin at the end of 2024 or in early 2025. He said it will take about a year to complete the construction.

“The reason for all of this is to make things here the very best they can be for the next generation,” Shell said. “With the (Arkansas Colleges of Health Education) at Chaffee Crossing and I-49 through here, we are changing things here. This will add another piece of that puzzle that will improve this area for the next generation and give them reason to stay here.”

With Interstate 40 running east to west and Interstate 49 running north to south, this project will make the Fort Smith region a major player in shipping, he said. The site is served by the Union Pacific and Arkansas & Missouri Railroad, which connects to the Canadian Pacific/Kansas City Southern (KCS) for distribution north and south.

Freight operations are based out of the headquarters location in Springdale as well as Fort Smith. Freight customers are predominantly located in those two geographic areas, the application states. In addition, Five Rivers Distribution offers all modes of transportation and owns a trucking company.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of completing a 12-foot minimum depth channel near the outlet of the Arkansas River, known as the Three Rivers Project. The channel deepening is estimated to result in a 43% increase in barge capacity, 76% more-ton miles/gallon of fuel by barge than by truck, and 1,000% decreased CO2 emissions of barge versus truck, the application states.