Aerial view of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.

Tulsa Port Sees Increased Tonnage, Tenants And Jobs

The Tulsa Port of Catoosa (Okla.) sees tens of thousands of tons of waterborne freight move quietly along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) every day. Commodities like wheat and soybeans; raw, processed and scrap steel; fertilizer, gravel and manufactured goods move to and from the communities of Pine Bluff, Little Rock and Ft. Smith, Ark., and Muskogee and Tulsa, Okla.

The port has seen tremendous growth over the years in not only tonnage, but also in jobs and businesses opening at the port.

Port Director David Yarbrough, who replaced Bob Portiss last year, said the port saw strong shipping on the waterway and rails earlier this year and is up about 400 jobs from this same time last year.

With a multimodal shipping complex and a 2,000-acre industrial park, the port is a significant part of Oklahoma’s economic sector. It contributes approximately $300 million annually to the state from handling bulk freight, including fertilizer, industrial gas, wheat and consumer goods.

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Sheila Shook, maritime education coordinator for the port’s Maritime Education Center, said things at the port are “going very well.” In addition to seeing an increase in steel shipments, which means an increase in manufacturing for the Tulsa area, Shook said the port experienced a record high soybean shipment during the month of April. A few new steel companies have also opened shop at the port.

Tonnage Milestones

Last December, the port handled its 50,000th barge since its opening in 1971 (WJ, December 18, 2017). The barge, loaded with processed coil steel, brought the total tonnage shipped or received at the port to more than 82 million tons at that time.

Prior to the 50,000th barge milestone, long-time port tenant Tuloma Stevedoring sold its assets to Watco Companies of Pittsburg, Kan., in a deal signed by Terry McDonald that closed October 4, 2017 (WJ, October 8, 2017).

The City of Tulsa-Rogers County Port Authority assigned Tuloma’s operating agreement for stevedoring and management series for the port’s main dock to Watco.

The McDonald family’s association with the port goes back to 1971. Terry’s father, Terence McDonald, operated the port’s first grain elevator, along with other facilities at the port. He is credited with having moved the first grain shipment from the port in 1971, when he worked for Garvey Grain. The elder McDonald also opened the service station at the port’s entrance, which is still operated under different owners. Terry took over the company from his father in 1984.

Watco, founded in 1983, operates 39 inland waterway terminals, including facilities at Houston and Birmingham, Ala. It is the nation’s largest private operator of short line railroads, including the Southern Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad, which serves the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. It also operates 27 truck terminals.

Tuloma handles primary iron and steel products, manufactured equipment, oversized products, palletized cargoes, and project cargo, with heavy lifts a specialty. McDonald said Tuloma had a good reputation for handling steel and heavy lifts for the region’s steel industry. Tulsa Steel, Ozark Steel and Cargill Steel are among the steel-related businesses in the area.

Soybean Shipping Record

In April, the port set a record by moving almost 80,000 tons of soybeans, which is the largest volume of soybeans ever shipped through the Tulsa Port during any month of April.  In comparison, this time last year, just under 50,000 tons were shipped.

“The increase we saw in soybean shipping totals speaks directly to both the great crop that our hardworking farmers are producing right now as well as the convenience, speed and navigability of the port,” said Rick Reimer, Oklahoma Soybean Board representative. “The Tulsa Port is an absolute partner with the Oklahoma Soybean Board, and they are integral in our ability to get our product to market.”

The record soybean shipment reflects another strong month of total barge tonnage for the Tulsa Port. In April 2018, the port moved a total of 245,778 tons by barge.

“When our shipping partners are successful, the Tulsa Port is successful,” said Port Authority Board Chairman Chip McElroy. “This is a strong indication of the agricultural economy, and it’s resources like the waterway that make it possible to efficiently transport this crop.”

Because it is Oklahoma’s premier inland river port, the Tulsa Port offers a “highway of water” for products to reach anywhere in the world. “It’s one thing to produce a crop,” Reimer said. “It’s another to get a great market price on shipping. Being able to ship using the Tulsa Port waterway opens up the opportunity for us to be able to reach markets throughout the country and beyond that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach.”

The port’s involvement with the soybean industry goes beyond distributing the crop outside of Oklahoma and offering farmers affordable shipping. The Oklahoma Soybean Board utilizes the Tulsa Port for educational purposes, tours and occasionally uses the port as a meeting place for board business.

“We enjoy working with the Oklahoma Soybean Board,” McElroy said. “Not only are they an important and valued shipping partner, but they also understand the value of the port and show it off to the members of their organization and other partners.”

A Financially Independent Port

When asked what made the port unique, Shook touted the fact that the port does not depend on tax money, despite being a state agency of sorts. “This goes back to 1967, when the original port authority board made a promise to voters that if they gave the $21.2 million in general obligation bonds, or property tax, to purchase the land and to build the port, then they would never ask tax payers for money again, and we never have,” she said. “We are very proud of that fact.”

The port has 70 companies that lease the land from the port authority, which Shook said is a large part of the port’s operating income. “We also receive money from the tonnage that comes through our port,” she added. “All the money made here at the port goes back into the port. We feel that we are the best example of a public and private partnership.”

Shook noted that the MKARNS was built at a cost of $1.2 billion, yet the port has $1.5 billion of private investment.

Yarbrough said he feels it is the port’s collaboration with stakeholders, local chambers, ports and terminals and the Corps that makes the port unique. “We work closely with the ports and terminals in Arkansas to promote the waterway and barge tonnage,” he said. “What is good for one port industry makes us all stronger. We truly have wonderful relationships with shippers, barge companies and even competing terminals throughout the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas, and we come together to promote our common interests.”

The retired towboat Charley Border is a popular exhibit in the port's Maritime Education Center.
The retired towboat Charley Border is a popular exhibit in the port’s Maritime Education Center.

Maritime Education Center

Another unique thing about the Tulsa Port is the fact that it has its own Maritime Education Center. The center is a free exhibit located at the port, which features interactive video kiosks teaching visitors about the port’s history and economic impact on Oklahoma. Other interesting insights about the port and artifacts from companies that utilize the port are incorporated throughout the center as well.

The center also holds educational events for students, who are invited to board a retired towboat, the mv. Charley Border, docked at the port. Shook said the towboat will be receiving an upgrade this summer.

“Our drydocked towboat will be getting a new paint job, new hands-on displays and more equipment for students to explore,” she said. “This project will be completed by the fall to start the new school year of tours.”

Shook said the center has an average of three school tours per week during the school year. “The tours range from third graders all the way through college and technical school students,” she added. “We also get a variety of civic groups and retiree groups that enjoy coming to visit our education center and the Charley Border.”

Recently, the Maritime Education Center hosted its second annual Who Works the Rivers career event with RiverWorks Discovery, an outreach program of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the National Rivers Hall of Fame. The event drew nearly 200 high school students.

The Maritime Education Center is a one-stop shop to learn about the 25,000 miles of inland river system in the United States, barge transportation, the MKARNS and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.

New Port Director

Last year, The Waterways Journal spoke to Yarbrough when he took over as the port’s director (WJ, April 24, 2017). In that interview, he said that after he moved to Ada, Okla., from Denver, Colo., when he was 11 years old, it took him many more years to realize there was a thriving waterway in Oklahoma.

“I am still embarrassed to admit that I grew up in Oklahoma and didn’t know we had a navigation industry,” he said.

As a matter of fact, Yarbrough admitted that he didn’t know the state had a port or river at all until he was assigned a job at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa through an engineering firm he worked for years ago. The firm, a contract provider of engineering services at the port, paved the way for Yarbrough to gain experience on many port-related projects.

“Most of the projects I worked on as an engineer were infrastructure and site design-related, but I eventually became ‘that guy’ in the firm who worked on all of the port projects,” said Yarbrough. “I always loved working on those projects and looked forward to the port site visits.”

A self-proclaimed nerd and outdoor enthusiast, Yarbrough said working on engineering projects at the port was the perfect mix of science and outdoors for him.

Growing up, Yarbrough told The Waterways Journal, he would take apart electronics and put them back together. “I ruined several of my mom’s small appliances that way,” he added. After high school, he went on to obtain his Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from Oklahoma State University.

“I spent the next eight years in Wichita, Kan., with a civil engineering firm, and then I changed jobs in 2000 and moved back to Oklahoma,” said Yarbrough, who worked in private consulting prior to joining the port permanently in 2006 as its operations manager.

In 2008, Yarbrough was named the port’s deputy director. Now as the port director, he said he’s thankful he had the opportunity to work under Portiss for 11 years. “Working with him has helped align my vision for the port with his,” he said. “I was a newbie to navigation when I came here, so my education came through him. Many of my goals and objectives for the port are in line with things he has initiated.”

Yarbrough said that in addition to maintaining the values instilled in him by Portiss, he wants the organization to periodically look at itself and make sure the port is still operating in the most relevant and impactful way within its current environment.

“After the port opened in 1971, we spent the next several decades just trying to convince the state, nation and world that there was a viable waterway in our region,” said Yarbrough. “To some degree, we still have to do that, but the port today represents capabilities so far beyond what we had in those early days.”

Port Challenges

Like all ports, the Tulsa Port of Catoosa isn’t without challenges. While Yarbrough admits that many of the port’s challenges aren’t specific to the area, Shook said there are a few items the area is focused on improving.

For instance, the Arkansas-Oklahoma Port Operators Association (AOPOA) points to two explicit issues in a recently developed paper. The first issue involves finding a solution to the “Three Rivers” area problem located at the confluence of the MKARNS and the Mississippi River, where it, according to the Corps, could be “one significant flood event away from losing navigation” on the whole system for an indeterminate amount of time.

The other issue, Shook said, is ensuring that adequate congressional appropriations are made for the current $150 million backlog of critically-needed maintenance work along the 445-mile-long navigation system. She added that “critical items of maintenance” are defined by the Corps as those projects that have a 50 percent chance of failure within the next five years.

Outside of the paper released by AOPOA, Shook said another crucial issue to the port and the surrounding area is the deepening of the navigational channel from 9 to 12 feet. “The deeper channel would result in a 30 percent increase in barge load capacity and would make our river system, beneficiaries and industries competitive with other rivers that are currently already at 12 feet,” she said. “These are federal issues that we go to Washington, D.C., to advocate for.”

It’s not just federal issues or project work that needs to be addressed, noted Yarbrough. There’s also a shift in the work culture that many industries are facing. “We need to educate young people to the fact that there are alternatives to college that allow them to make a good living, such as jobs in manufacturing,” he said. “Doing so will take collaboration with industry and career tech programs to identify and fill these needs.”

As to why the work culture is changing, Yarbrough said the current skilled workforce is aging and many vacancies will be left by retiring workers. “As a nation and as a culture, we have to return to the days when trades were highly valued and promoted,” he said.