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WASHINGTON -- A member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission told federal lawmakers Wednesday that the "rapidly aging" McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System desperately needs additional funding, warning of the consequences if the shortfall isn't fixed.

The 445-mile waterway, which stretches from Tulsa to the Mississippi River, opened in 1971. The series of 18 locks allows barges to traverse Arkansas and portions of northeast Oklahoma, but it's starting to show its age, said Pine Bluff Sand & Gravel Co. Executive Assistant Phyllis Harden.

"Lack of upkeep and the critical backlog of maintenance is just increasing dramatically every year," Harden told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's subcommittee on water resources and the environment.

The nation's inland waterways will need $4.9 billion in capital investments over a two-decade period, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated in 2016.

Overdue work stretches from coast to coast.

"This is not just our system. It's other systems, too," Harden told members of the panel.

To help pay for fixes, the tax on barge fuel was raised in 2015 from 20 cents to 29 cents per gallon. Still, officials are struggling to make headway.

Harden said she'd like to see the channels on the Arkansas River deepened from 9 feet to 12 feet.

The Redfield resident, who serves as vice chairman of the Pine Bluff -Jefferson County Port Authority Board, said the shallower channel makes it harder to compete with businesses along the Mississippi River.

In 2003, Congress authorized making it 12 feet deep, but didn't provide the money to complete the project, Harden said.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., stressed the importance of the waterways to the states that utilize the system.

The lawmaker from Hot Springs represents the 4th Congressional District, including Pine Bluff.

"The river is kind of out of sight and out of mind to the general public, but it has a huge economic impact," Westerman said.

The topic of Wednesday's hearing was : "The Cost of Doing Nothing: Why Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and Investment in our Nation's Waterways Matter."

In addition to Harden, the list of witnesses included officials from the Port of Bandon, Ore., the Port of Los Angeles and others.

They collect taxes for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which has grown to roughly $10 billion. The money was supposed to be used to dredge and maintain harbors. Lawmakers and port officials expressed frustration that the government is collecting the money, but not distributing it as it should be.

"We are taxing the American people for a specific purpose where we have great needs and yet that money is being essentially stolen by the Congress and stuck into a theoretical trust fund for theoretical deficit offset. It is absurd," said Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio.

He promised to push for legislation to address the matter.

Business on 04/11/2019

Print Headline: Waterway needs fix, Arkansan tells panel

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