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Provisions added to the proposed federal budget bill would open up billions in aid to help restore the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

The 445-mile waterway rose to record levels this year, flooding land along the river in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The high water left behind a silted river channel and has delayed agency inspections.

Additions to the America's Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 would allow Oklahoma to apply for up to $250 million for the river system and for Arkansas and Oklahoma to apply for federal freight grants, totaling more than $5 billion in the five years after the legislation's enactment.

Republican U.S. Sens. John Boozman of Arkansas and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, along with Govs. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, contributed to a news release Wednesday detailing their efforts.

Amendments presented by Boozman and Inhofe were accepted during a committee markup session for the federal infrastructure bill, which opens up $287 billion from the Highway Trust Fund over five years to maintain and repair the country's roads and bridges.

The senators wrote two amendments: one would allow Oklahoma and Arkansas to apply for federal discretionary grant funds for the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System; another would allow any state to use their federal freight formula funding on waterway projects if needed or desired.

The decadesold river system is overdue for improvements, Boozman said in a statement.

"For far too long, the MKARNS has been operating under a critical backlog of much needed modernizations," he said. "Our changes will provide the [system] with a number of new funding outlets that were not previously available to this important project."

This is just the first step. Several Senate committees are involved with the reauthorization of the highway bill and members of the House are crafting their own version, a spokesman with Boozman's office said in an email. Funding authorizations in the current highway bill expire at the end of September 2020.

In his remarks, Hutchinson echoed Boozman's sentiments, calling these provisions "great news for Arkansas and the future of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River."

The river system, which begins in Catoosa, Okla., and flows across Arkansas into the Mississippi River, was originally built to handle the floods that wiped out crops and, sometimes, entire towns.

A series of floods in the 1920s drummed up enough public interest for senators from both states to lobby Congress to fund the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. On Jan. 3, 1971, the first commercial barge was pushed into Oklahoma's Port of Muskogee. About 12-14 million tons of cargo flow through the system annually.

An inspection of the river channel is ongoing in both states.

Dredging and sediment issues remain on the river in central Arkansas and near Dardanelle, said James McKinnie, chief of the navigation and maintenance section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Little Rock division.

"Just because we have things up and running doesn't mean that everything is 100%," said a spokesman with the agency. So far commercial barges are able to move downstream to the Mississippi River, but not upstream.

Funding for the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System solely comes from the federal government, usually in the form of appropriation energy and water bills, and the agency makes line-by-line budget submissions a few years out, McKinnie said. The federal agency does not receive funds from the state or private entities.

For fiscal 2019, the agency received about $26 million to run the system, which covers wages, electric bills, dredging efforts, inspections and other expenses. The agency also submits requests for major unexpected events, such as flooding.

"We have provided some estimates on various aspects for the situation out here," McKinnie said without going into detail. "Part of it is we are still in the process of finding what all still needs to be fixed."

Several repairs are on hold until the muddy waters clear.

"The Arkansas River's got a lot of sand and sediment, which makes it difficult to see more than a foot or two anywhere," McKinnie said.

Business on 08/02/2019

Print Headline: 2 states seek funding to clear river system

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