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Investing in Inland Ports

Investing in Inland Ports


By Luke Carothers

The Port of Muskogee, one of two public ports located in Oklahoma, is a vital link in the manufacturing of goods throughout the region–supplying products such as rolled steel coils, ceramic, and paper materials to manufacturers throughout the Tulsa region.  The Port of Muskogee is part of the larger, 445-mile McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigational System, which begins at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa and runs southeast through Arkansas before connecting with the Mississippi River. One of the few inland ports in the region, the Port of Muskogee sits near the confluence of three rivers–the Arkansas, Neosho, and Verdigris. 

Inland ports are often not discussed in as many words as their ocean-based counterparts, but the Port of Muskogee is part of a robust network of infrastructure that has a massive bearing on regional economies.  According to the Port’s Director Kimbra Scott, its location also imbues it with several distinct advantages.  Unlike more northern ports, the Port of Muskogee is operational year-round.  Furthermore, Scott describes the McClellan-Kerr Waterway as the “most inland of inland rivers” and the Port of Muskogee’s position just 50-miles downriver puts it at a distinct advantage from a navigational perspective.

While ports located near the coast have to endure the strength of hurricanes and waves, inland ports are also subject to damage from extreme weather events.  This often comes in the form of flooding, which can be sudden, unpredictable, and devastating.  In 2019, after several days of heavy rainfall, these three rivers became inundated, and the Arkansas began to flood heavily with water flowing at more than 675,000 cubic feet per second.  Floodwaters at the Port of Muskogee measured in excess of 30 feet during the height of flooding.  According to Scott, this was the largest flooding event the Port had experienced since the navigation system was put into place, and the resulting damage heavily impacted infrastructure up and down the Arkansas River, including the Port of Muskogee.

One of the most dramatic moments of this devastating flood came when turbulent waters caused two barges to break loose from the Port.  These two barges traveled swiftly downstream before crashing into the Weber’s Falls Locking Dam.  In the aftermath of the flooding, operations on the river were delayed for more than four months.  Combined with the damage to infrastructure, the flooding cost the state of Oklahoma upwards of $20.7 million in GDP.  Cleanup efforts included removing the two barges from the bottom of the river, which was achieved by reducing the water to an extremely low level.  While the barges were being salvaged in low water, the Port of Muskogee set about assessing the damage to the docks from which they had broken loose. These inspections revealed that the dockside structures had been compromised in the flooding, and that several of these structures needed to be replaced.  

As a part of a recent federal announcement to allocate $703 million in grants to improve port infrastructure and strength supply chains, the Port of Muskogee is receiving a $24 million grant to improve its infrastructure.  According to Scott, this grant money will be focused in several areas to greatly improve the Port’s infrastructure.  A large portion of this funding will go towards constructing a new heavy lift dock.  Additionally, this funding will also allow the Port to replace the existing dock and dockside rail and add a 30,000 square foot warehouse.

Despite the devastation of the 2019 Arkansas River Flood, the damage it caused has provided a catalyst for the further development of the Port of Muskogee.  Scott notes that, flood or not, the Port had not made any improvements to its infrastructure since it opened in 1971.  This investment in inland port infrastructure provides not only an opportunity to fix the damage caused by the flood, but also provides space to improve the port with an eye towards future growth.  The growth of the Port of Muskogee is tied with improved local and regional economies.  The growth of the Port of Muskogee has the potential to significantly improve the lives of the people living in the area, and this plan for investment and improvement can be seen as a way to directly improve the lives of historically disadvantaged communities.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.