The Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) voted unanimously on Wednesday (June 13) to sign a cost-sharing agreement with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with the feasibility phase of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Port (formerly known as Lavaca Slackwater Harbor).
The agreement obligates RITA to a $50,000 expense on a study that is estimated to cost $200,000, according to Corps project manager Renee Wright. (The remaining $150,000 will come from federal funding.)
Members of the Corps met with RITA at the Holiday Inn City Center in Fort Smith to discuss details of the study, which began with RITA’s request in September. 2010. The Corps acknowledged the request and announced in February 2012 that conditions were right for deeper analysis.
“These studies are typically very hard to get justified, and the fact we’ve gotten it to this point is good, and unusual,” Wright said on Wednesday, noting that the NWA port was originally considered for one of four possible locations: Vache Grasse Park in Lavaca, Highway 59 on the north side of the Arkansas River in Crawford County, The Landing at Ozark, and Chaffee Crossing.
On Wednesday, Wright verified the Chaffee Crossing and Ozark locations were not feasible, meaning the Corps will focus on two key areas: Lavaca (at a preliminary cost estimate of $21 million) and Crawford County (at a preliminary cost estimate of $18 million).
Wright added that, to determine whether the benefit to cost ratio will warrant further action, the Corps will focus on “six to ten existing businesses in the area that are currently using truck or rail, who might shift to water. That is key.”
By “in the area,” Wright did confirm that businesses could reach as far as Northwest Arkansas, and would not be confined solely to the Fort Smith region. While the Corps will be looking at the amount of commodities businesses would be willing to change over to water transport, Wright added that the study could not “hold them to it.”
“Ultimately, the benefit cost ratio must be greater than one. You have to have enough people saying they’ll move to the port and ship commodities out at an amount that will be more than the annual costs,” Wright said.
The Corps will reference a previous environmental impact study (EIS) through the feasibility phase. “We’re hoping an environmental assessment will be all that’s necessary,” Wright said, noting that if the previous EIS was not sufficient and research determined another was necessary, the costs could increase significantly “into the millions.”
“That would change everything, but with the recent EIS already in place, we’re hopeful the assessment will be all that’s needed,” Wright said.
Should the study move along according to plan, Wright said the public review and comment period would occur in October 2013 with the feasibility report finalized by December 2013.
If the feasibility study determines the need for a new port and RITA enters in to a project partnership agreement, the organization, which is supported by Fort Smith, Van Buren, Crawford County, and Sebastian County governments, would be responsible for 20% of construction costs.
Steve Taylor, vice-president of Johnston Ports out of Oklahoma and a critic of the effort to build another port on the Arkansas River, questioned the need for a new public port facility.
"Again, the Corps should know better than to go on with a cost-sharing study. I would have felt they would have done the initial study to discuss the capacity that's being utilized already at Five-Rivers (Distribution) and the public Port of Fort Smith. You have three facilities already that are over capacity with not near enough business. Another facility is not going to bring business. If it was happening in my area, I'd be asking, 'Why are we doing this?'"
According to Taylor, Johnston Ports, which owns Port 33 between Muskogee and Catoosa and operates the public Port of Muskogee, handles "about 3 million tons per year: 2.2 million at Port 33 and another 800,000 at Muskogee," adding that those numbers "represent a 200-mile working radius."
"The region where they're looking at adding a fourth port facility, that's about a 30-45-mile working radius, and you've got three facilities now that are underutilized, pulling in probably 1, 1.5 million tons per year. Catoosa and Port 33 handle about 2.2 million tons per year each, and Muskogee handles about 1 million in a 25-mile radius. There just isn't enough industry (in the Fort Smith region) to justify this."
As the Corps looks to these 6-10 businesses in its feasibility study, Taylor wonders: "There's already one public port, and there's plenty of capacity in the three existing locations. So if these businesses are going to switch, then why aren't they switching now?"
Also Wednesday, RITA board members approved a contract with CRS Advanced Engineering for engineering and consulting services relating to intermodal and development opportunities.
The agreement will consist of a $5,000 retaining fee and an ongoing $3,000 per month in consulting expenses with the first two months running $6,000. RITA Chairman Bob Null said the organization will not require additional funding through the end of 2012, and that RITA is “looking in to additional funding sources at this time.”