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Federal Recognition Could Open Up A World Of Opportunities For The Illinois Waterway

A barge moves along the Illinois River on a recent day in summer 2021.
Courtesy Jude Goergen, @jugoe_ on Instagram
A barge moves along the Illinois River.

Dan Silverthorn's dream of bringing the Illinois River up to its full economic potential finally caught a gust of fresh wind in its sails.

Silverthorn is the longtime chairman of the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District. After years of scuttled attempts to get major projects off the ground, the port district went dormant.

"It seemed like everything we touched was wonderful, but it just...we never could get it pulled together. So anyway, with the '09 or '08 turndown, the Great Recession, everything has come to a standstill, and it's basically been that way ever since," he said.

But interest was reinvigorated a couple years ago during an encounter with retired Colonel Bob Sinkler, the former commander of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District.

Sinkler noted the 175 mile stretch of river running roughly from Ottawa to Havana isn't federally recognized as a port.

"That causes some issues, because you can't invest in a port if it doesn't exist," Sinkler said.

About 34.4 million tons of freight are shipped along the Illinois River each year.

"That's larger than the port of St. Louis," Sinkler said. "I mean, it's significant."

Courtesy Bob Sinkler / Corn Belt Ports

That includes more than 22 million tons shipped along the stretch of counties running from LaSalle to Mason. In fact, these 10 Illinois River counties would constitute the 29th largest port in the United States if recognized as such. That includes not only inland ports, but also coastal ports.

"We bring in a tremendous amount of fertilizer, and we also ship out a tremendous amount of corn and soybeans," said Sally Hanley, the business assistance manager at the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

Ray Lees, a planning program manager with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, compares the river to one of the nation's busiest interstates.

"Ironically enough, or maybe not so ironically, the Illinois River is Marine Highway 55," Lees said.

But whereas St. Louis has tapped into more than 50 million dollars in federal port investment since 2003, the Illinois waterway hasn't received a dime.

Silverthorn said the HOI Port District has largely worked with local and state government, not the feds.

"They don't know who we are. They don't know we exist," said Silverthorn. "Bob has convinced me, through all these conversations, that when they see these tonnage numbers, they're going to say, 'well, where did it come from?'"

That's where Sinkler comes in with his connections from his Army Corps of Engineers days. He recently on-boarded as a consultant for the local port system.

Sinkler says Central Illinois can secure a piece of the $17 billion reserved for ports in the federal infrastructure bill only if it obtains federal recognition first.

Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omer Osman said there's a new focus on water infrastructure happening at the state level, too.

"For the first time in a long time, the department has started tackling and getting involved in our port system," Osman said, pointing to IDOT's recent investments in a port project in Cairo, in deep southern Illinois.

Lees said a 15-barge tow can ship the equivalent of more than a thousand trucks.

"Whatever can be moved off the highways is just that much less wear and tear on the surface transportation system," he said.

That could ultimately save IDOT a bundle of money on road maintenance costs. But it also takes longer to move products that way. It currently takes a barge about 12 days to make it from Chicago to New Orleans.

Silverthorn says a lot of time could be saved if the antiquated Illinois River locks and dams could handle modern barge capacity.

"I think the goal of all of them was to make them 1,200 foot locks, and bring them up to date," Silverthorn said. "They were built in the '20s. Think about that. A hundred years ago."

Locks and dams along the Illinois River were closed for maintenance last summer as part of a $200 million project. But Silverthorn points out there are still wicket dams operating on the Illinois River, including at Peoria. That technology was phased out decades ago.

Sinkler said it all comes back it all comes back to getting on the federal government's radar. He hopes to get the region recognized by the U.S. Waterborne Commerce Commission by October.

"It just gets overlooked when this area does not show up on the principal ports list or maps that are being used to support decision-making and funding decisions inside the beltway in D.C.," Sinkler said.

Obtaining recognition both as a U.S. Port Statistical Area and as one of the nation's top 50 ports also helps with branding, said Hanley, the business assistance director at the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

"We always tout, and rightly so, our logistics area. And so we're very fortunate to also have a waterway to point to as a logistic improvement," she said.

Hanley said could bring economic development not only to the waterway itself, but also railways and access roads on the 40 feet of shore on either side of the river that the port district also controls.

"We can get billions of dollars of investment pumped into the region, and take advantage of this waterway that runs right through our region," said Lees. "And we've got something here that Champaign doesn't have, Decatur doesn't have, Springfield doesn't have, we've got it here. We can literally ship anything in the world from Peoria."

For Dan Silverthorn, earning the Illinois River the recognition he believes it deserves is a step towards fulfilling the vision he's refused to give up on.

"I've hung on this long because I knew there was something that could be done with this. And frankly, I've never failed at anything. And I felt this was a failure," Silverthorn said. "Because it had been such great hopes. It could have been so great, and it didn't happen. And I didn't go away. I didn't want to go away. I didn't want to do it anymore, but I wanted to see it on its feet. And that's kinda what drives me. I don't like losing. And so this has gotta happen. And I think it will. I think it will."

Currently, the port district is gathering resolutions of support from each of the 10 county boards governing along the Illinois Waterway.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.