UA cen­ter re­searches in­land wa­ter­ways

Nav­i­ga­ble rivers give state weight in freight stud­ies

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - EMMA N. HURT

With the third- largest num­ber of nav­i­ga­ble, in­land wa­ter­way miles in the na­tion, Ar­kan­sas is a log­i­cal head­quar­ters for the Mar­itime Trans­porta­tion Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter.

The cen­ter, at the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas at Fayet­teville, is one of the na­tion’s top mar­itime mul­ti­modal re­search cen­ters.

MarTREC, as the cen­ter is com­monly known, first opened in 2013 within the Mack-Blackwell Trans­porta­tion Cen­ter. In De­cem­ber, the U.S. De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion an­nounced that it would re­new and in­crease fund­ing for MarTREC, to the tune of $ 7 mil­lion.

The cen­ter is a con­sor­tium of six uni­ver­si­ties, but the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas is the lead and dis­trib­utes the grant. MarTREC’s na­tion­ally rec­og­nized group of re­searchers stud­ies the na­tion’s in­land wa­ter­ways and how to best move cargo on and around them. How­ever, its ex­is­tence is some­thing of an ac­ci­dent. Heather Nacht­mann, a pro­fes­sor of in­dus­trial en­gi­neer­ing and the di­rec­tor of MarTREC, con­ducted her first re­search re­lated to mar­itime mul­ti­modal trans­porta­tion in 2001, when a project on the eco­nomic im­pact of Ar­kan­sas’ wa­ter­ways was un­ex­pect­edly left with­out some­one to fin­ish it. Nacht­mann had a back-

ground in eco­nomic im­pact stud­ies and agreed to take over the $7,000 project.

From there, Nacht­mann has built a spe­cialty for her­self and the school, from that orig­i­nal project to the $ 7 mil­lion MarTREC just re­ceived.

“I al­ways tell our new fac­ulty: Don’t over­look new op­por­tunism,” she said. “Seven-thou­sand dol­lars is very, very small. But if I had said no, I prob­a­bly would never have got­ten into this area.”

Ar­kan­sas has five nav­i­ga­ble rivers. The Ar­kan­sas River is the busiest with 10 mil­lion tons of freight in 2015 run­ning from Ca­toosa, Okla., to the Mis­sis­sippi River. Still, ac­cord­ing to Gene Hig­gin­botham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ar­kan­sas Wa­ter­ways Com­mis­sion, the state’s wa­ter­ways are “a re­source we haven’t fully de­vel­oped yet.”

Each tow­boat on the river pushes be­tween nine and 15 barges at a time, and each barge holds about 60 truck­loads of prod­uct. Bryan Day, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lit­tle

Rock Port Author­ity, said shift­ing that onto the roads would re­quire nearly 1,000 trac­tor-trail­ers.

“And that’s just one tow,” he said. “We move thou­sands of tows a year. If that river sys­tem didn’t ex­ist, all that com­mod­ity we’re mov­ing through Ar­kan­sas would have to be on the in­ter­state highway sys­tem, which couldn’t ac­com­mo­date it.”

And trans­port by wa­ter is cheaper. The Ar­kan­sas Wa­ter­ways Com­mis­sion es­ti­mates that the cost per ton per mile on a barge is 97 cents, com­pared with $2.53 on rail and $5.35 on a truck.

“It’s also the safest mode of trans­porta­tion and the most en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, be­cause it uses the least amount of fuel,” Nacht­mann said.

Re­search con­ducted un­der the cen­ter’s um­brella varies but falls into three main cat­e­gories, Nacht­mann said. One echoes the theme of the lat­est govern­ment grant — up­grad­ing the in­fra­struc­ture of the wa­ter­ways, no­tably the ag­ing pumps and gates of the lock and dam sys­tem that en­ables rivers like the Ar­kan­sas to stay deep enough to han­dle the cargo.

An­other type of study in­volves lo­gis­tics: re­search that helps tar­get where ports could be up­graded to max­i­mize their use and ac­ces­si­bil­ity for spe­cific in­dus­tries.

“The high­ways are so con­gested, and they are get­ting so worn, but there’s ca­pac­ity on the wa­ter­ways,” she said. “So what we need to try to do is make the in­ter­modal con­nec­tors easy to ac­cess and plen­ti­ful.”

Third, the cen­ter spon­sors re­search on risk, re­li­a­bil­ity and re­silience. Nacht­mann said this could in­clude how barges are used in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion.

“For ex­am­ple, if an earth­quake ac­tu­ally hap­pened at the New Madrid Fault, could we build hos­pi­tals on barges and bring them up the rivers, carry heavy equip­ment and bring de­bris out?” she said.

“For ev­ery county in the state of Ar­kan­sas, we looked at which ones could ben­e­fit the most from the in­land wa­ter­way sys­tem, so that when they wrote their emer­gency op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures they were prop­erly informed.”

In gen­eral, Nacht­mann hopes MarTREC will help pro­mote aware­ness and prove the value of river

trans­port as an im­por­tant part of the state and na­tional econ­omy.

“I give talks to stu­dents all the time who say, ‘I grew up along the Ar­kan­sas River, and I had no idea there was freight com­ing down the river.’ And in some ways, that’s why the mode is so won­der­ful. It’s not im­pact­ing your life,” she said.

“But be­cause of that, you’re not aware of its pros so much. I would love to see ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ments. I can’t im­pact that, but we try to do stud­ies that say, if you had the money, this is where you should in­vest it,” she ex­plained.

Hig­gin­botham said the cen­ter’s eval­u­a­tion of the re­gional eco­nomic im­pact of the Ar­kan­sas River was “huge.” The Army Corps of En­gi­neers re­con­sid­ered its per­cep­tion of the eco­nomic im­por­tance of the river thanks to the study, he said.

“It might help us get a lit­tle bit more money for the sys­tem. It makes a bet­ter case in D. C. when it comes to fed­eral fund­ing,” he said of the re­search. “In or­der to fig­ure out where to go, you’ve got to fig­ure out where you are.”

Ar­kan­sas Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

A tow­boat pushes a barge in De­cem­ber on the Ar­kan­sas River near Mur­ray Lock and Dam.

Ar­kan­sas Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

A tow­boat pushes barges down the Ar­kan­sas River last sum­mer.

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