River Valley slackwater harbor project nets $15 million federal Maritime Administration grant

The Arkansas River is seen on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Van Buren. Sen. Mat Pitsch, executive director of the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority, recently briefed the authority's board of directors on a concept study plan report for the proposed development of an intermodal facility that would be located on the Arkansas River in Van Buren. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

VAN BUREN -- A proposed slackwater harbor in Crawford County on the Arkansas River -- with significant expected economic impact to follow -- is getting the money it needs to move forward.

The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority was selected to receive a more than $15 million grant award from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration to assist with the development of the harbor, according to a news release from the authority Friday.

This, combined with a more than $3.7 million commitment from Five Rivers Distribution, a transportation and warehouse company based in Van Buren, brings the project total to more than $18.8 million.

"This project's transportation improvements will benefit and better support the movement of goods and freight that are so important in driving our region's economy," the news release states.

The River Valley Slackwater Harbor project will create an estimated 38 temporary jobs, 48 direct jobs and 22 additional jobs involved in cargo movement totaling about $16 million in wages over a 10-year period, the news release states. The harbor is forecast to handle 210,533 tons of freight in 2026, a number predicted to climb to an additional 250,000 tons of freight annually by 2035 before reaching 528,331 tons by 2050.

"This terminal expedites the movement of containers and bulk products such as steel coils, wire rod coils, bar stock, pig iron, bulk feed, chemical, petroleum goods and all break bulk and finished good products," the news release states. "At this time, 20 industries with 3,500 employees are reliant on and served by Five Rivers Distribution."

News of the $15 million grant came as part of an announcement from the Maritime Administration on Friday that more than $653 million would be used to fund 41 port improvement projects in the country under the Port Infrastructure Development Program. The River Valley Slackwater Harbor project was the only project in Arkansas to receive this money, which will help grow capacity and increase efficiency at coastal seaports, Great Lakes ports and inland river ports, according to a Maritime Administration news release.

The new slackwater harbor will be built off the main channel of the Arkansas River and be about 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide, according to the Maritime Administration. It will have both the capacity to moor and offload up to eight barges at a time and about 2,000 feet of dock frontage with a 50-foot-wide concrete deck for mobile cranes. The grant will provide money for design services and project management.

"The new harbor enhances 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," the news release states.

"The project significantly increases the throughput capacity of the port. The project will also 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."

Sasha Grist, executive director of the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, which provides operating space and other support for the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority, said the slackwater harbor will be located in the area of the Five Rivers Distribution terminal, albeit further down the Arkansas River. The authority submitted the application for the grant money in partnership with Five Rivers Distribution in April.

Grist said she predicts the authority's board will meet before the end of the year to discuss the grant. Marty Shell with Five Rivers Distribution would be invited to the meeting. The authority and Five Rivers Distribution will also wait to hear back from the Maritime Administration about having a "kickoff meeting" during which the administration will explain the necessary next steps on the grant and from there work toward getting an engineer for the slackwater harbor project.

Grist estimated an engineer will be procured in about three to six months from Friday. She said the authority and Five Rivers Distribution intend for the approximately $18.8 million the project has received to cover its entire cost.

The authority

The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority plans and develops initiatives for transportation improvements benefiting western Arkansas. It coordinates efforts with units of government and takes a leading role in pursuing public and private investments to achieve such improvements.

Source: Western Arkansas Planning and Development District website