SPRINGFIELD — A proposed river port development in the town of Cairo is drawing much attention and interest from companies that believe it could open up greater access to international markets, officials behind the project said Tuesday.
The Alexander-Cairo Port District project has been on the drawing board for about 10 years, but it was given a major boost in 2019 when the General Assembly passed a $45 billion capital improvements plan called Rebuild Illinois, which included a $40 million investment in the port project.
If the project is given final approval — officials have said it will require more than 20 state and federal permits — that money is expected to draw an estimated $300 million in private investment, creating hundreds of construction jobs and many more permanent jobs with cargo shipping companies and other supporting industries.
John Vickerman, a design consultant working on the project, and other consultants conducted a videoconference Tuesday to provide an update.
“We know that the Corps of Engineers has approved the deepening of the Lower Mississippi, allowing much bigger vessels up into the Mississippi, upwards of 50 to 75 miles from its current configuration,” Vickerman said. “So what’s happening here is we’re changing the very character of the inland waterway system.
“Every port and every terminal of the more than 35 terminals on the Mississippi, and many on the Ohio, on the Illinois and the Missouri, are now and will be shortly 50 to 75 miles closer to open ocean. Their ability to move export product down the Mississippi and effectively transfer to large ocean vessels is upon us.”
Vickerman said his firm performed a “macroeconomic” market analysis to identify the domestic industry sectors that would most likely benefit from such a port.
He said those include such products as non-GMO soybeans, and particularly “identity preserved” soybeans — a kind of specialty crop that enables processors to know precisely which field the beans were grown in — as well as other commodities like coal, coiled steel, scrap metal, agricultural fertilizer, biofuels and wind energy equipment.
Todd Ely, a Springfield-based economic development consultant who has been working on the project since its inception, said many firms that work in those sectors have already signed “nondisclosure agreements” with his company in order to have further discussions about possible future development.
“And as the port develops, and the business model becomes a bit more clear, we’ll be looking forward to offering them proposals and prices, and we’re confident we’re going to get quite a bit of their business,” he said.
The port is envisioned as a public-private partnership between the Alexander-Cairo Port Authority — a governing board that includes officials from Alexander County, the city of Cairo and the Cairo Public Utility Company, which owns the land where the port would be located — and a private port operator.
It would involve building a large landing facility on the Mississippi River, about 5 1/2 miles upstream from the confluence with the Ohio River. It would also include a large system of cranes that would lift cargo containers off of barges or other vessels that come upstream from New Orleans — many of which would originate in Asia and pass through the Panama Canal — and load them onto rail cars and semi-trucks.
Vickerman noted that traditional barges have not been very successful in North America at carrying large volumes of standard 20-foot cargo containers, although they have had more success in Europe. But he said there are new types of vessels under development that can haul as many as 1800 such containers, fueled by liquid natural gas, which reduces their carbon footprint.
Cairo is considered an ideal location for such a port because of its access to both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers as well as its access to three interstate highways and a transcontinental Class 1 railway system operated by the Canadian National Railway.
But one of the keys to making the project viable is making sure there is enough cargo originating from Illinois and the Midwest to put back on the vessels so they don’t have to return to New Orleans empty, something that project officials say they’re still working on.
“We do have a strategy we’ll be executing on early in 2022,” Ely said. “We’ll be working with various state agencies and trade associations and individual companies that have already expressed interest in using the port for export of their products.”
In a separate interview after the video conference, Ely said he hopes to be able to reach a deal with a private port operator during the first half of 2022 and to submit a permit application to the Corps of Engineers by November 2022.
If the project remains on schedule, he said, groundbreaking would take place near the end of 2022 and the port could become operational late in 2024.