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Newly-formed Illinois Waterway commission looks to develop river ports

The Illinois Waterway Ports Commission, a part of the wider Corn Belt Ports, met at the Peoria Riverfront Museum last week for their first annual meeting.
Collin Schopp
The Illinois Waterway Ports Commission, part of the wider Corn Belt Ports, met last week at the Peoria Riverfront Museum for its first annual meeting.

With the signing of the Illinois Waterway Ports Commission Act in June, Gov. JB Pritzker created an oversight committee bringing together five port districts and 10 counties, aiming to fully utilize one of the state's premiere natural resources: the Illinois River.

The newly-formed commission held its first annual meeting last week at the Peoria Riverfront Museum to provide updates on building out infrastructure for the ports.

Robert Sinkler is theeExecutive coordinating director of the Illinois Waterway Ports Commission. He said the organization had to overcome several hurdles before June's bill signing.

In 2019, there were no federally recognized ports anywhere on the Illinois waterway, from Grundy County just south of Chicago, down to Mason County. In the last few years, the commission gained federal recognition.

“It was rated by Global Trade Magazine last fall as a ‘Top 50 Power Port’ and the U.S. Department of Transportation ranked it as a top 25 bulk cargo port in the United States,” Sinkler said. “So we went from nothing to a nationally ranked port almost overnight.”

As he puts it: you can't invest in ports that don't exist. So the next step is attracting investment.

Sinkler said since federal recognition, the port commission has attracted over $300 million in investment from the Illinois Infrastructure Bill.

That money is planned for projects like modernizing the river's locks and dams.

“The LaGrange Lock and Dam now has been fully funded to do the engineering and design for a 1,200-foot lock. Then, the next step after that is to award a construction contract and get a construction start,” Sinkler said. “So these are things that many of us have been working on for many years, well over a decade.”

The commission also enjoys enthusiastic support from lawmakers. State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, attended the meeting and called the waterway "the most valuable asset we have."

“This is extremely important because it now pulls together all those resources, all those entities along the river that have a vested interest in it,” he said. “And those interests are broad. But it’s important that we have a focal point, a commonality about what we can do to help protect and preserve the Illinois River.”

In addition to cementing the region's important role in the nation's agricultural supply chain, the Peoria Democrat also sees the port system as a considerable supplier of jobs.

“There’s already been some funding, some projects in place, there needs to be more,” Koehler said. “But the Illinois River represents every aspect of our life that we want. You want to talk about recreation, you want to talk about jobs, you want to talk about getting goods to market? The Illinois River is it.”

Even with all these economic opportunities on display, it is important to the Illinois Waterways leaders to balance out ecological considerations. Dan Silverthorn is the chairman of the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District Council that includes the Tri-County area.

“If you dig about six feet down in the silt right in these big lakes here in Peoria, you run into chemicals and stuff that is not good,” he said. “We’ve got to stop any of that from happening in the future.”

Sinkler said with all these advantages in mind, the Illinois Waterway ports are nationally significant.

“This is the 42nd port in the United States based on freight tonnage, you just can’t ignore a port of that size,” he said. “And most of our products are for export, or many of our products are for export.”

Sinkler said about 50% of those exports are petrochemical products, construction materials and wind turbines, all traveling by barge.

The other 50% of exports make the ports significant to the state, as well as nationally significant, because they're vital for one of Illinois' biggest industries: agriculture.

Bill Bodine is the director of Business and Regulatory Affairs for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“It’s a very important market for corn, soybeans, especially for export,” he said. “So, utilizing the river system is something we’ve been supportive of for a very long time and pleased to see continued progress on how we can upgrade the infrastructure and be more efficient moving corn and soybeans down the river.”

Bodine said the section of river is important for national agriculture interests too, as many goods pass through Illinois on their way to New Orleans for export.

“It gives us access to world markets, we can move goods around the world,” he said. “It’s important for the Illinois agricultural economy because it does present those additional markets, additional opportunities to sell those goods. That’s supportive of the entire economy here.”

With so many vested interests in the existence of ports on the Illinois Waterway, from economic development and supply chain stability to job creation and access to world markets for agricultural products, Sinkler sees the millions of dollars in investment already secured as just the tip of the iceberg.

“I think the biggest hurdle is just getting federally recognized, getting on the national ports list,” he said. “There’s just been all kinds of investment that has taken place after that.”

Sinkler points out that many ports in the United States are privately owned while providing public use. Manufacturers like BioUrja in Peoria and Alto in Pekin have previously expressed interest in creating ports in our area.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.