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FORT SMITH -- The country's largest terminal operator is interested in building and operating an intermodal port in Crawford County, a consultant for the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority said Monday.

After the announcement by John Vickerman of Vickerman and Associates, members of the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority voted to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Ports America to conduct a six-month study on the feasibility of developing the port on the Arkansas River, during which the authority would negotiate with Ports America exclusively.

The authority also received a letter from Union Pacific Railroad, dated March 2, expressing interest in the authority's plans for a western Arkansas industrial park and river port development.

The authority is composed of public officials and private sector representatives from Fort Smith, Van Buren, Crawford County, Sebastian County and the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority.

The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority wants to develop a facility on 6,000 acres east of Van Buren that would include a slack-water harbor on the river side of the Arkansas River levee and an intermodal port for a rail yard, distribution centers and warehouses on the inland side of the levee.

According to the Ports America memorandum, the authority and Ports America "agree to engage in exclusive bilateral discussions regarding a proposed project in which Ports America seeks to participate to develop, build and/or operate a state-of-the-art multimodal logistics park and integrate river port terminal (the Facility) to be situated on a large tract of land within the Crawford County levee near the existing Class 1 railway service (the Union Pacific & Kansas City Southern Railroads), Interstate 540 and Interstate 40."

In its assessment of the port's potential, the memorandum said, Ports America will use its relationship with railroads to identify potential stakeholders, investors and customers as it evaluates the inland intermodal and barge opportunities at the Crawford County port. It also will evaluate the possibility of cargo originating from the port that could go to Port America's coastal terminals by barge, truck or rail.

A map on Ports America's website showed it operates terminals in the area of the Gulf of Mexico at Gulfport, Miss.; New Orleans in Louisiana; Houston, Galveston and Corpus Christi in Texas; and in Tampa, Fla. It also has terminals on the east and west coasts.

Vickerman reported Monday to the authority on completion of a 10-month market assessment and requested expressions of interest from port developers, for which he was paid $200,000. He said he was contacted by Ports America, which expressed an interest in working with the authority on a potential port project.

Vickerman and the authority's Mat Pitsch said they didn't know what Ports America has in mind but that the first phases of the project probably would involve truck-to-rail operations. Any operations involving the river probably would take longer to develop because of federal environmental regulations and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rules that the authority would have to comply with, they said.

They also didn't know what the scope or cost of the project would be or what roles each entity would play. Vickerman said he believed it would be a public-private partnership in which the authority would own the land and Ports America would build and operate the port.

"At this stage, Ports America envisions the proposed transaction as a long-term concession that will allow Ports America to partner with [the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority] and potentially other stakeholders in the improvement of the facility," the memorandum said.

The transaction structure could change depending on the results of the company's due diligence, according to the memorandum.

Ports America has the financial backing of Highstar Capital, a private equity fund that makes long-term investments in assets and businesses in infrastructure and related sectors, the memorandum said.

NW News on 03/06/2018

Print Headline: Firm conveys interest in Crawford County port

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