The U.S. inland waterways system needs a new plan for maintaining reliability and performance with limited resources, says a new report from the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board.

The U.S. inland waterways system needs a new plan for maintaining reliability and performance with limited resources, says a new report from the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board.

More targeted operations and maintenance (O&M) investments, informed by an asset management approach, would prioritize locks and facilities that are most in need of maintenance and for which the economic impacts of disruption would be highest, the new report states.

"The federal government has neglected infrastructural needs for several years, and it’s not just locks and dams, but highways and bridges," Five Rivers Distribution President Marty Shell said. "The key part is to spend it wisely, so I hope they take a business-like approach."

Shell, whose business operates Arkansas River ports at Fort Smith and Van Buren, said that one of the reasons the federal government has not been successful in maintaining the nation’s infrastructure was because of "gridlock."

"There’s so much gridlock, it’s overwhelming," Shell added. "The federal government is so huge, it can’t get hardly anything done. It’s not like in John Paul Hammerschmidt’s days when they worked with each other across the aisle to get things done for the country instead of their party."

As an example of poor management on infrastructure projects, Shell said the Olmsted Locks and Dam project between Illinois and Kentucky, 17 miles north of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, has "sucked the trust fund dry" for years. Authorized by Congress in 1988 at a cost of $775 million, the project is scheduled to be completed in 2020 at a cost approaching $3 billion. The project took most of the Corps’ annual allowance until just recently.

"Someone ought to go to jail for that," Shell said of the Olmsted project. "If I ran my business like that, the IRS would’ve put me in jail."

Waterways money has changed its flow, and the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System is expected to benefit from a recent status upgrade from "connector" to "corridor." Several Fort Smith and Van Buren industries, as well as a factory in Mena, use the river for less expensive delivery of such things as metal, sand and agricultural products.

A $3 million study to protect navigation on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System was included in President Barack Obama’s $4.7 billion budget for the Army Civil Works program in fiscal year 2016. It is one of only 10 studies for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed worthy following a long-standing "no new starts" policy.

The Arkansas General Assembly approved the $1.5 million matching funds in the recent session this April. The Corps previously spent $22 million on "Band Aids" to fix the "Three Rivers" area in 2009 and 2011.

The 308-mile Arkansas portion of the M-KARNS is set to receive nearly $32 million for operation and maintenance this year, with $27.5 million in the president’s budget and an additional $4.1 million added by the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works.

The federal inland waterways infrastructure is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and funded through Corps’ navigation budget.

The entire inland waterways system moves nearly 7 percent of all ton-miles of domestic cargo, primarily coal, petroleum, food and farm products, chemicals and crude materials. It consists of more than 36,000 miles of commercially navigable channels and about 240 working lock sites. The chief and most expensive component is the installation and maintenance of lock and dam infrastructure to enable the upstream and downstream movement of cargo.

About 50 percent of barge cargo moves on six major river corridors. It represents 16 percent of the total waterway miles, while many inland waterway segments have minimal or no freight traffic.

According to the Transportation Board, commercial navigation users pay a share of the system’s construction costs through a fuel tax, but pay none of the roughly $650 million annual cost of O&M, which is funded through general tax revenues. The board recommended a system that was more reliant on user payments.

Arkansas waterways users have said they would be in favor of a diesel fuel tax to keep locks and dams in operation.