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 provide a significant boost to commerce in Oklahoma and across the region by improving the 50-year-old McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, also known by its acronym, MKARNS.
State transportation officials said there is about $600 million in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which Congress approved and President Biden signed last November. What's more, there is funding 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In addition to providing dollars for needed maintenance on the 445-mile-long waterway's 18 locks and dams and replacing outdated moorings, the measures are expected to enable the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the channel from nine feet to 12 feet and thus increase the amount of cargo that barges can transport.
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 three additional feet of depth, “…the capacity of each barge could increase by nearly 400 tons and increase the value of business sales by over $250 million.”
Opened in 1971, MKARNS currently moves about 12 million tons of cargo each year between the Port of Catoosa, just outside of 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 percent more," said Terri Angier, ODOT Interagency Liaison and Public Relations Advisor, in an interview Monday.
Angier said the agency is also excited about more than $100 million included in an addendum to the IIJA called the "Three Rivers Project" which focuses on MKARNS infrastructure. The need for such upgrades, she said, were made clear during the May 2019 floods when barges became unmoored and slammed into dams and threatened the bridges that cross the waterway.
"And to know that this Three Rivers project will really do a lot to protect our bridges because of what they’ll do with the infrastructure of the dams, the locks, the moorings," said Angier, "everything that’s involved in securing barges and being able to protect bridges."
None of Oklahoma's members voted for the Infrastructure bill, but still Angier said the delegation generally, and Sen. Inhofe specifically, have been champions of the agency and have pushed to ensure that Oklahoma benefits as much as other states, if not more.
Sen. Inhofe sits on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee and joined all of his colleagues in a unanimous vote to move the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 to the full Senate for consideration.
"Between the two bills," Angier said, "there is a lot of attention on the waterways and Oklahoma is going to really benefit from that."