MUSKOGEE, Okla. — A federal transportation bill approved unanimously by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would open up $250 million Oklahoma could use for McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System improvements. 

A provision added to America's Transportation Infrastructure Act by U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and John Boozman, R-Ark., also would allow Oklahoma and Arkansas to pursue as co-applicants federal freight grants that could be used to modernize the inland navigation channel.

Inhofe, in a media release, said the MKARN's future "is more than just deepening an existing waterway." The amendment crafted by him and his Arkansas counterpart, he said, "would bring the MKARNS into the next generation."

“Providing new funding opportunities to deepen and modernize MKARNS will empower future economic development and expand agriculture exports and oil and gas development in our state," Inhofe said. It "would allow the more efficient movement of goods across all modes of transportation by relieving congestion and reducing wear and tear on highways and bridges.”

The five-year reauthorization bill would make available $287 billion from the Highway Trust Fund for maintenance and repairs of the nation's transportation infrastructure. After passage from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, it is headed for the Senate Finance Committee, where senators will be tasked with funding the "largest highway bill in history."

Port of Muskogee Director Scott Robinson said the amendment that would provide funding for MKARN improvements, and modernization is something Oklahoma's senior senator has been working on.

"Inhofe and Boozman have been working on this for some time now, making sure MKARNS stakeholders are eligible to apply for grants," Robinson said. These grants would be "similar to BUILD grants — competitive across all transportation networks."

The U.S. Department of Transportation this past year awarded a $5.7 million BUILD Transportation grant to the Muskogee City-County Port Authority. Grant funding will be used to modernize railroad access to the port, facilitating access to six-axle locomotives, which have become the industry standard, and expand its marshaling yard.

The grant was awarded about 10 months after the authority's third application for an even more competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program was denied. U.S. Transportation officials had said the Port of Muskogee project was a top contender all three years, but limited program funding prevented it from being funded.

Robinson said he believes the bill would allow ports and states to partner as co-applicants fro some of these grants that could become available if the bill passes in its present form.

"Having suffered unprecedented flood damage in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and having non-federal matching funds, it could possibly tip the scales in our favor," Robinson said, noting the competitive nature of those grants. "If Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas can team up, I believe the odds would improve."

Gov. Kevin Stitt, in a joint media release with the senators, said the provisions in the transportation bill, which recognizes and addresses a changing climate's impact on the nation's infrastructure, would "give our state the tools to use federal freight funding and INFRA grants to modernize MKARNS and expand its impact across our great state."

"This is a critical infrastructure priority that will continue to grow Oklahoma and expand opportunity for economic diversity," Stitt said, noting the navigation channel's economic impact. "I appreciate the visionary leadership of Sen. Inhofe and the collaborative efforts with our neighboring state as we make significant progress on expanding MKARNS.”

The amendment introduced by Inhofe and Boozman and accepted during the committee mark-up would allow Oklahoma and Arkansas to apply for federal discretionary grant funding to modernize and deepen MKARNS. Inhofe authored another provision that would give states some discretion to use federal freight formula funding on waterway projects.

Expanding discretionary grant funding, the senators said, would not diminish the importance of federal resources for highways and bridges. It would, however, improve the efficient movement of freight along recognized transportation corridors by relieving congestion and wear and tear on our nation’s highways — for each barge on the river, 62 tractor-trailer rigs are taken off the road.

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