The U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration announced Friday that the $18.9 million River Valley Slackwater Harbor Project, 12 new dock spaces unaffected by the Arkansas River's flow at Fort Smith, is among 41 national projects getting federal funding from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.
Almost $15.1 million of the money is coming from the federal government, with the Five Rivers Distribution intermodal port authority matching that 20%, or $3.77 million. The company bid for the federal money with the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District's Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority, which is funded by the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren and Sebastian and Crawford counties.
Five Rivers Distribution currently has three dock spaces in Van Buren and two in Fort Smith. The port moves 300,000 to 400,000 tons of cargo a year that comes in by water and goes out by rail or road, President Marty Shell said.
"Right now, we try to grow our business 10% to 12% a year; we would anticipate this being hopefully a 20%-per-year-type growth," he said of the project, adding that the benefit-cost analysis submitted with the grant application showed $1.50 returned for every federal dollar spent.
Through Five Rivers Distribution, products come and go over land and the river from far across the continental divide.
Much of the cargo consists of industrial or agricultural products, like steel coils for the Rheem Manufacturing Company's Fort Smith plant, guidewire manufactured at the Bekaert Fencing factory in Rogers, chicken feed for the Arkansas poultry industry and feed additives for dairy cows in farms further west.
The harbor will be around 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide with the capacity to offload up to eight barges at a time. The new dock spaces will provide around 2,000 feet of frontage with a 50-foot-wide concrete deck for mobile cranes.
Shell said the harbor will benefit continuing operations during high-flow conditions, which can last for weeks on end during spring and summer. It's safer and easier to dock barges in a slackwater harbor during those conditions. The 2019 Arkansas River floods saw flows of 620,000 cubic feet of water per second; Shell said the typical small craft advisory is nearly one-ninth of that: "You have to think about 70,000 cubic feet of water per second pushing up against a barge, and then you have to think about putting manpower out there, assets and equipment."
Five Rivers Distribution may be able to use all 17 ultimate dock spaces at the same time, but having so many more will be a key selling point in attracting new customers, Shell said.
Shell said the project will benefit the River Valley region in light of its access to Interstate 40 and Northwest Arkansas' boom, especially considering the Interstate 49 project. Five Rivers Distribution's partnership with the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad provides the port with reciprocal switching with three Class I railroads.
"We have these assets here," he said, naming Fort Smith's 7,000-acre Chaffee Crossing economic development area, the Northwest Arkansas National Airport just over an hour away and "a liquid highway that comes through here that you never know about, see about or talk about that moves millions of tons of freight a year."
Shell said project planning has gone on for decades, with Western Arkansas Planning and Development District Executive Director Sasha Grist and her organization doing much of the most recent work to secure federal funding by writing the grant and cultivating a relationship with the federal Maritime Administration. Arkansas Department of Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald has also been a key supporter, Shell said.