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Illinois Waterway wins new federal recognition, opening the door to big investment opportunities

Seth Perlman/AP
In this Aug. 22, 2012, A boat is seen dredging the Illinois River south of Havana, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

A federal commission has officially recognized the Illinois Waterway as a port statistical area.

The U.S. Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center approved the Consolidated Illinois Waterways Ports and Terminals Port Statistical Area on Oct. 28.

That's not just a bit of bureaucratic paper-shuffling. The step opens up access to millions of dollars in new funding opportunities, just as the president nears signing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law.

The new statistical area incorporates a 175-mile stretch of the Illinois River, beginning in Starved Rock Country, running down through the Peoria area, and ending at Havana about an hour south of the River City.

More than 22 million tons of goods are run down the river through these 10 central Illinois counties each year, making the collective region the 29th largest port area in the United States. But the lack of recognition as such by the federal government until now has cost the area countless funding opportunities.

"You can't invest in a port that doesn't exist. And that's the situation that we've really been in, where the federal government had not recognized our ports. And now that they're recognized, we should be able to use that designation as a way to attract more investment," said Bob Sinkler, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commander for the Rock Island District now working as the water resources infrastructure director for the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District. "And I think we'll start seeing that happen sooner rather than later now that we're finally on the scoreboard."

Sinkler said his work now shifts to assisting the region in attracting more federal and state investment.

"Phase one was getting recognized. And phase two is just taking things to the next step and organizing the teams necessary and the resources necessary to ensure that we can really compete effectively at the national level for resources associated with the tonnage that we handle," said Sinkler.

Some of that money could be used to tackle some of the river's major environmental challenges, such as sedimentation and invasive species, said Dr. Anshu Singh, an environmental scientist working with Corn Belt Ports.

"There are some projects which are ready to ready to start under the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program. Like they are maintaining some islands and side channels to improve the aquatic habitat, and to increase opportunity for fish passage," she said. "But the only issue is some investment is required. And now with having these Corn Belt ports recognized, I see a lot of potential that we might get some federal investment in it."

The so-called Corn Belt ports include the Mid-America Port Commission at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers; and the Mississippi River Ports of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois, in addition to the Illinois Waterway port area.

The federal infrastructure bill now awaiting President Joe Biden's signature earmarks $17 billion specifically for port investments across the country.

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