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Loading and unloading barges on the Red River near Texarkana, a long-sought goal by some southwest Arkansas economic development and political leaders, will work financially, according to a new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The finding of a favorable benefit-to-cost ratio seemed almost as big an obstacle to a navigable Red River as the legendary "Great Red River Raft," the estimated 130-mile long logjam that stymied developing commerce on the river for much of the 19th century.

The last feasibility study backed by the Arkansas Red River Commission stalled in 2005 after it concluded the costs outweighed the benefits. A total of $8 million in government funding -- $4 million state and $4 million federal -- was spent between between 2002 and 2016 on feasibility studies, according to a 2016 report.

But in a sense, installing locks and making other improvements to the Red River north from Shreveport is returning the river to its natural state, said Dan York, chairman of the Arkansas Red River Commission and a farmer from the Little River County community of Foreman, which lies just north of the Red River.

"With 'the raft,' the river was pooled up," York said. "That's what we want to do with navigation -- more or less return it to its natural state.

The 142-mile project under study stretches from the Interstate 220 bridge just north of Shreveport-Bossier City in Louisiana to the Index Bridge at U.S. 71, about 9 miles north of Texarkana in Little River County.

The project essentially is an extension of the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, which extends north from the Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana to Shreveport -- named for Henry Miller Shreve, the riverboat captain credited with eliminating much of the Great Raft.

The 234-mile waterway, which has five locks and dams to make a 200-foot wide, 9-foot deep navigation channel, cost $2 billion to complete. It opened in December 1994 and now carries about 8 million tons of cargo annually, according to the Corps.

There already has been discussion of extending navigation on the Red River to Dennison, Texas, which is north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.

"When you think about the United States, the 10 leading metropolitan areas as far as population, only one is not served by waterway and that's Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area," York said. "With container on barge on the upswing ... with the congestion on our highways and all, I think it's a real possibility."

The study for the southwest Arkansas portion, including part of Louisiana north of Shreveport, was paid for from $1 million the Arkansas General Assembly appropriated in 2015, at the behest of Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.

The money came after the Legislature "zeroed out" the Red River Trust Fund in 2014 when it had a balance of $8 million, according to a 2017 commission fact sheet.

The Corps used the money to contract with Gulf Engineers & Consultants of Baton Rouge.

The firm's study found extending navigation on the river could save $75 million in annual shipping costs, according to a commission news release.

The conclusion was based on analyzing bulk commodity shipments via railroad freight traffic in the Red River valley and the likelihood the shipments would be diverted to barge traffic. Based on surveys of local industry and chambers of commerce, the study identified 10 business and 25 "unique traffic flows" that might benefit from extending navigation on the river.

The Corps said in a statement that the study gave the agency enough information to move forward.

"Based on these findings, [the Corps of Engineers] intends to request the resumption of a feasibility study," said Reagan Lauritzen, a spokesman for the agency's Vicksburg District in Mississippi.

Deirdre Smith, director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, called the finding of a favorable benefit-to-cost ratio significant.

"The [Corps of Engineers] is extremely thorough when determining the cost-to-benefit ratios on construction projects, so if they determine that it is a financially sound investment to the nation, it provides assurances to the state and communities surrounding the system that this is something worthwhile in pursuing," she said.

The next step is securing funds to complete the feasibility study, York said.

"At the moment, we're looking at our options and we want to pick the best option to take to our elected officials and present that to them," he said. "If we can secure funding, we can proceed ahead with the feasibility study."

He called the benefit-to-cost ratio a "big part" of any feasibility study. "We've completed that. In '05, we pretty much completed the feasibility study but when the benefit-cost ratio came up short, well that was the end of it."

York said he anticipates the completion of the study will include additional environmental analysis as well as updating the estimated cost of the project.

"There'll be comment periods," he said. "It could take a couple of years. Or it could take three years. But in the end, what we want an official U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study that's approved by the chief of engineers that we can take to try to get funding for construction.

Hickey said the progress on the project had languished for years before the Legislature eliminated the trust fund, which triggered a refocus of the strategy in getting a feasibility study that could support construction of the navigation system.

"They got real serious at that point," he said. "It's just a ton of work, figuring some things out. It was a serious effort."

As a result, Hickey said the project has renewed impetus. And the Red River navigation system in southwest Arkansas has to be done first before the Dallas-Fort Worth end of the project can start.

"With Dallas, that would be a huge thing if you could ever tie all that in together," Hickey said. "'It's been one of those long hauls, but I think it's a whole lot bigger reality than it probably has ever been."

A map showing Red River navigation study advances.

SundayMonday Business on 03/10/2019

Print Headline: Barges on Red found feasible

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