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Rail Infrastructure a Key Connector for Helena Harbor (John Edwards Commentary)

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With near-constant political footballs commanding the airwaves — or so it seems — it’s easy to forget the less glamorous issues and policies that actually serve as the foundation for our society’s economic success. Infrastructure is one of these topics, a crucial factor for our state and regional growth. We see this every day at Helena Harbor, where the rails, roads and runways meet the water to provide seamless connections for our industrial base.

Unfortunately, Arkansas as a whole isn’t making the grade for infrastructure. We earned a D+ in the last infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, with the report stating that nearly 24 percent of Arkansas roads, or over 100,000 miles, are in poor condition.

“The quality of a state’s infrastructure is near the top of the list of factors that business owners consider when deciding where to locate a business or enterprise,” Sen. John Boozman recently wrote in the Southwest Times Record. “Sensible, productive investments in our state’s infrastructure will foster economic development in rural Arkansas.”

As Boozman points out, the health of our infrastructure is directly tied to how much we are able to invest in it — and leaders at all levels of government are struggling to identify funding mechanisms. While we continue to discuss ways to pay for the infrastructure that we rely on, it’s worth noting that one transportation sector is miles ahead, providing a useful model for what’s achievable.

Freight railroads, often-overlooked workhorses for American industry, are self-sustaining examples of how private sector investments pay public dividends. They manage to maintain and grow a nationwide network of 140,000 miles almost entirely through their own private spending, without the support of taxpayers. And like other infrastructure, this is an expensive proposition, requiring about 40 cents of every revenue dollar.

Rail’s massive investments, which total some $100 billion in the last four years alone, work to enhance efficiency and safety for shippers. Whether supporting intermodal freight through new facilities and added track capacity or faster service through precision routing and new technologies, this spending ultimately benefits the businesses that ship by rail, like our port customers. In 2018 alone, Union Pacific plans to spend $127 million on its Arkansas network.

That’s why Helena Harbor worked hard in recent years to restore our short line connection via a public-private partnership with the Delta Regional Authority, Walton Family Foundation and Genesee & Wyoming, the parent company of our local short line Arkansas Midland Railroad. Today, the port’s seven miles of new rail connect our local businesses to Union Pacific and the larger rail network, an efficient gateway to the West Coast and Gulf for Arkansas exports.

Trains are also vital for Arkansas’ access to North American trade corridors. After all, Mexico and Canada are the state’s largest trading partners by value, with this trade supporting more than 110,000 jobs. Last year Arkansas exports to NAFTA countries increased by nearly 14 percent. The fate of U.S. railroads is similarly tied to trade; a recent study showed that 50,000 rail jobs and 42 percent of rail carloads and intermodal units directly depend on international trade. The administration and policymakers in Washington would be wise to reflect on NAFTA’s numerous economic benefits for industries and consumers across the U.S.

As our public officials forge ahead on infrastructure, I would urge them to look to rail’s user-pay model for other projects and continue to support smart public policies that enable railroads to invest in our state and U.S. transportation networks. Our long-term economic success depends on healthy infrastructure.

John Edwards is the economic development director at Helena Harbor and Phillips County Economic Development. Email him at JEdwards@HelenaHarbor.com.
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