2 bills would make improvements to Arkansas river navigation system

The money included in two major pieces of federal legislation — one already signed into law, the other likely to become law later this year — is expected to give a significant boost to commerce in Oklahoma and the region by improving the 50 ans- former McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, also known by its acronym, MKARNS.

State transportation officials said there was about $600 million in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that Congress approved and President Biden signed into law in last November. Additionally, funding is included in the Water Resources Development Act of 2022, which was reported out of committee in the Senate earlier this month.

In addition to providing dollars for necessary maintenance on the 18 locks and dams of the 445-mile-long waterway and replacing obsolete moorings, the measures are expected to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the canal by nine feet to 12 feet and thus increase the amount of cargo the barges can carry.

In a letter to the United States Army Corps of Engineers last month, the Oklahoma delegation urged that the deepening project be prioritized and said, with an additional three feet of depth, “…the ability to each barge could increase by nearly 400 tons and increase the value of business sales by more than $250 million.

Opened in 1971, MKARNS currently moves approximately 12 million tons of cargo each year between the Port of Catoosa, just outside Tulsa, and the Mississippi River on the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Oklahoma transportation officials say increasing the depth to 12 feet would allow barges to carry significantly more.

“Right now the estimates are about 40% higher,” Terri Angier, ODOT’s interagency liaison and public relations adviser, said in an interview Monday.

Angier said the agency was also excited about the more than $100 million included in an addendum to the IIJA called “Three Rivers Project” which focuses on MKARNS infrastructure. The need for such improvements, she said, was made clear during the May 2019 floods when barges unmoored and rammed dams and threatened bridges that cross the waterway.

“And to know that this Trois-Rivières project is really going to do a lot to protect our bridges because of what they’re going to do with the infrastructure of dams, locks, moorings,” Angier said, “all that is involved in securing barges and being able to protect bridges.”

None of the Oklahoma members voted for the infrastructure bill, but Angier said the delegation in general, and Senator Inhofe in particular, championed the agency and pushed for that Oklahoma benefits as much as other states, if not more.

Senator Inhofe sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and joined all his colleagues in a unanimous vote to bring the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 to the full Senate for review.

“Between the two bills,” Angier said, “there’s a lot of focus on the waterways and Oklahoma is really going to take advantage of that.”

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