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Groups hope to maximize potential of the Peoria area port designation

221103 Illinois River 1.jpg
Joe Deacon
Stakeholders from several organizations are looking to determine the best ways to maximize the economic potential of the Illinois River, in and around Greater Peoria. Last year, a 175-mile stretch of the river earned federal designation as a port statistical area, opening access to significant infrastructure funding.

Stakeholders from several organizations are looking to determine the best ways to maximize the economic potential of the Illinois River, in and around Greater Peoria.

The efforts stem from last year’s federal designation of the Illinois Waterways Ports and Terminals Port Statistical Area, which incorporates a 175-mile stretch of the river – from Havana to LaSalle-Peru – and opens access to significant infrastructure funding across 10 counties.

Dan Silverthorn, the board chairman for the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District, says the designation is a major boost that was years in the making.

“By putting these 10 counties together, basically, and creating this linear port and a port statistical area, we now are recognized by the federal government as this 42nd largest port in the nation,” he said. “With doing that, it puts us in a great position in the future to bring funds to our port operators in that portion of the river. That gives us a lot of political power, I think, (and) gives us a lot of strength in being able to help all those operators and all businesses in that part of the river.”

Silverthorn says there could be a tremendous amount of funding for developing the Ports of Peoria in the near future.

“From what I hear, there's like $50-$60 million out there that's going to be available for us to look at in the next four or five years. So I think that's a significant amount of money that could be available,” he said. “We've got to present these projects to them, but now they know who we are. We're on the map now.

“I did not realize it, but in putting this all together, we found out that there’s never been a recognition of a port by the federal government north of St. Louis. So think of what we missed out on all these years. So I just really feel it just gives us some real clout, and that'll help us serve the people that helped us put all this together.”

Area leaders and representatives from several organizations met at last month's Illinois Waterways Ports Annual Meeting in East Peoria to begin looking into potential opportunities emerging from the port designation.

State Sen. Dave Koehler, the keynote speaker, says collaboration will be imperative,

“We're going to see how we can improve different access and improve the health of the river, quite frankly,” said Koehler. “I think this means that the river has a good future (and) we're going to take care of it. This river is a precious commodity, whether it's water, whether it's recreation, whether it's its commerce and the barge traffic. All these things take place on the river, and this is an effort to make sure that we do things right and do them well and do them together.”

Ray Lees is the Planning Program Manager for the Peoria-based Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. He says the Illinois Department of Transportation has designated $100 million toward capital investments to ports and other areas along the Illinois River.

Lees says now it's a matter of getting everyone on the same page to take advantage of the all the possibilities the waterway highway offers.

“We certainly understand that within the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District, and while it's been dormant for about 10 years, this designation by the Corps of Engineers and the pulling together of the Illinois Waterway stakeholders provides a new opportunity to unify the voice and the interests of these different stakeholders up and down the Illinois River,” said Lees.

So what types of improvements might be in store?

“We have grant programs that can fund infrastructure, landside infrastructure that facilitates the movement of freight and goods,” said Travis Black, the Director of Inland Waterways at the Maritime Administration's office in St. Louis. “The Illinois waterway is one of our marine highways, it's M-55. By that designation, it's eligible to apply for a series of grant programs that we have, particularly the American Marine Highway grant program.”

Black says the federal port designation will assist in the region's pursuit of project funding.

“It's basically a grant program that helps to facilitate moving unitized cargo that's currently on other modes like rail or truck and trying to get them on the waterways,” said Black. We're trying to reduce emissions, we're trying to be a clean – it's the cleanest and most efficient form of transportation. We feel like that's an underutilized asset compared to the congestion on the rail and on the roadways.”

All the planning isn't just about economic benefits, however. Anshu Singh, the Director of Sustainability and Conservation for Corn Belt Ports, says funding for ecology projects is also critical.

“It's a very significant ecosystem because we know that migratory birds follow these paths while going to Canada,” Singh said of the Illinois River system. “In 1986, Congress designated it as a nationally significant navigation system, as well as a nationally significant ecosystem. Now being a federally recognized port, we are getting more attention.

“The Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability program, which was there since 2007, never got funded. Now in the first time, after the recognition of these Corn Belt Ports, under the infrastructure bill, that NES program got funded after 15 years of its inception. So we are going to see a lot more activity because money is there. We have this Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program and we have (the) Illinois River Restoration Program, which also includes the Illinois River tributaries. So we're going to see a lot of activity here.”

221103 Illinois River 2.jpg
Joe Deacon
Stakeholders from several organizations are looking to determine the best ways to maximize the economic potential of the Illinois River, in and around Greater Peoria. Last year, a 175-mile stretch of the river earned federal designation as a port statistical area, opening access to significant infrastructure funding.

Singh says organizations will work in conjunction to prioritize conservation efforts.

“Together, we need to work to identify those ecosystem restoration projects, because once you have those projects in the shelf ready for the construction, it should not happen that – this time we got money in 15 years, and now we are expecting every year an annual appropriation. So we want, like next year when we get money, to already have those projects already in our shelf.

“You have to do all those feasibility studies, and it takes time to get ready and design those projects – and those projects are like building islands and side channels and backwater restoration. So we need to identify, do the feasibility studies and make them ready for the construction, so that when we get money, we already have projects in hand.”

Koehler says he believes maximizing benefits from the Illinois River requires commercial and conservation interests to be considered equally.

“Whether you're transporting millions of pounds of grain to different destinations all over the world, or whether it's the fishing industry, whether it's recreation, the river is really one of our most vital assets, and we have to protect it and we have to plan on how we're going to best use it,” he said. “We're, I think, seeing a great effort by both those who want to make sure we protect the river environmentally, and those that really want to take advantage of the fact that we have one of the busiest rivers in terms of barge travel in the United States.”

Central Illinois farmers may experience the biggest benefits from improved port access and river conditions.

“We have been advocating for improving our lock system on the Illinois River for decades, it seems like,” said Bill Bodine, the Director of Business and Regulatory Affairs for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “The more efficient we can make transportation, especially along the river system that we have here in the state of Illinois, the more competitive our farmers will be on the global agricultural markets. So making those improvements would be a huge advantage for Illinois farmers.”

Jim Tarmann, the managing director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, also is eager to see river improvements.

“From a corn grower perspective and our members, the Illinois and Mississippi rivers is what I consider our third coast,” said Tarmann. “Over 60% of the corn and soybeans travel down these river systems, and improving our ports to have better access to the river so those products can move more efficiently down, it's a no brainer. It's good to be working on the collaboration of bringing everybody together to make that happen.”

Other river Industries would also benefit from the funding available through the port designation.

“The biggest need for us is to dredge the river more,” said Roy Sorce, president of Sorce Freshwater, fishers of Asian carp on the Illinois River. “But I think the biggest need is to keep these ports open and the water flowing so there's current and there's water levels that are maintained, and they're able to harvest these fish.”

Robert Sinkler, the Water Infrastructure Director for the HOI Regional Port District, says waterways in Illinois support 160,000 jobs and generate $36 billion of economic activity each year. Sinkler says the goal of the annual meeting was to start a dialogue about the next steps.

“It's going to be developing a programmatic plan,” said Sinkler “What kind of resources do we really want to pursue? What are the needs and requirements here? That will inform that programmatic plan, and then we’ll come up with a legislative implementation strategy to work with our legislators to help kind of guide and direct and encourage more funding to come here to the region.”

Koehler says capitalizing on the port designation is a big deal for the region, and he envisions the Greater Peoria area developing into an intermodal transportation hub in central Illinois.

“The river, sometimes we don't appreciate it for what it is,” said Koehler. “But the river makes us different and special in the world of commerce and what goes on within how communities develop.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.