Now is the right time to not only repair our infrastructure but invest in it for the future, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said Monday afternoon during a panel to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System.
Buttigieg joined the panel virtually. Also on the panel, hosted by the Little Rock Port, were Little Rock Port Authority Executive Director Bryan Day and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.
State Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock was the panel’s moderator, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson offered opening remarks.
The governor said the MKAR system started with a study in 1943, received funding in 1956 and was dedicated by President Richard Nixon 15 years later. Since then, it’s been a great asset in recruiting industry to the state, he said.
Hutchinson thanked Buttigieg for his participation in the panel and the attention he’s paid to the closed-for-repairs Interstate-40 bridge that connects Arkansas to Tennessee. Buttigieg, a former presidential candidate, visited the bridge last week. During the panel, Buttigieg and others referred to the bridge as they argued for more investment in infrastructure.
Buttigieg also promoted President Joe Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan, which calls for $1.7 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next decade. He said the plan includes $17 billion for inland waterways, ferries and coastal and land ports of entry. He said it includes a program to address air pollution in the neighborhoods near ports, an expansion of public transit and more.
The U.S. ranks 13th in the world in the overall quality of its infrastructure, most of which gets a C-plus score from civil engineers, Buttigieg said. These facts add urgency to the American Jobs Plan, he said.
A Winning Bet
The transportation secretary also mentioned the $230 million Port Infrastructure Development Program, which offers grants to improve facilities, coastal seaports, inland river ports and Great Lakes ports. The deadline for applications is July 30, he said. Another similar federal grant program Buttigieg mentioned is America's Marine Highway Program; the application deadline for it is June 25.
All the panelists emphasized the major impact infrastructure has on the economy.
“Our inland and coastwise transportation system employs more than 50,000 American workers, both afloat and ashore, and one of the crown jewels of that system is MKAR that generates well over a billion dollars in economic value in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and throughout the region, and helps support in some way the transportation needs of a dozen states,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg said the forward-thinkers who designed the MKAR made a bet on infrastructure investment that opened new economic possibilities for the entire region for decades.
“We've been relying for too long on the investments that were made long before our time, which is why now is our turn to do the same,” he said. “Now's our chance for a generational investment.”
The other panelists agreed. Day credited the MKAR system for not only economic development, but for its flood control, irrigation, environmental and wildlife habitat retention, recreation and tourism benefits.
“The economic impact is, it's not measurable, it's billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of jobs and untold benefits to communities that can't be measured,” he said.
Day said the port is nearly 4,000 acres now and that companies there employ about 7,000 people.
“We need an aggressive infrastructure plan, but we also have to take care of what we have. We've seen that with the I-40 bridge on the current system,” Day said. “We know there are several hundred million dollars’ worth of critical, critical needs …”
Changing the Channel
Another infrastructure project the panel discussed was an effort to deepen the MKAR’s current channel to 12 feet from 9 feet. The Three Rivers Project would make the port more competitive, Day said.
The panel said they can support federal infrastructure efforts by sharing the effect such projects can have. Fifty years ago, leaders made a billion-dollar investment in the MKAR, which now pumps about $1.5 billion into the central Arkansas economy every three to five years, Day said.
“That's a good return on your investment, and I think those are the stories we have to tell the secretary,” he said.
"So we give the secretary more ammunition as he's working across the party lines to ensure that we have a true infrastructure package, because that's what's best for our nation. That's what's best for our state. That's what's best for the city of Little Rock,” Scott said. “We understand that here in Arkansas. That's the reason why we've been fully supportive of infrastructure development. We want to continue to do that as we move forward.”