Ports & Terminals

Decision Could Come Soon On Corn Belt Ports

Robert Sinkler, who has been leading the charge to have ports in the greater Quad Cities region statistically merged into a single port district, says a final decision from the Corps of Engineers on the concept could come within two weeks.

The project has been dubbed the Mississippi River Ports of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois (MRPEIWI). Sinkler himself refers to all the ports and terminals along the Illinois Waterway and Upper Mississippi River above Locks and Dam 26 as the “Corn Belt Ports.”

If the boards of 15 counties along the Mississippi River between Keokuk and Dubuque, Iowa, pass resolutions to join a statistical port area, and the application is  approved by the Corps, the 222-mile-long statistical area would be the 68th largest in the United States, including coastal ports. It would be the second largest such port district between St. Louis and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Approval would mean that port and terminal data for the designated area would be consolidated into a single listing, which Sinkler says would help with recognition, funding and coordination of infrastructure improvement efforts.

In the past year, Sinkler has presented and argued for the concept before just about every local county board, city council and regional planning agency in the region. He has succeeded in getting buy-in and support from almost all of them, although his efforts have been slowed by the lockdowns associated with COVID-19.

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“I just don’t see any downside to this [designation] at all,” he recently told The Waterways Journal. “It helps forge a single port identity for this region, it helps with data collection and management, and it helps us with grants. It helps port and transportation funding move toward that flexibility envisioned as long ago as 1991, when President George H.W. Bush signed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) into law. ISTEA promoted a transportation system in which different modes and facilities—highway, rail, aviation and marine—were better integrated at the local level.”

The Quad Cities region, embracing both banks of a westward-running stretch of the Mississippi River, includes the towns of Moline, East Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa.  The Quad Cities metro area (Scott County in Iowa and Rock Island County and Henry County in Illinois) has about 500,000 people altogether. The largest of the towns, Davenport, has a population of about 100,000. The area is dense in river terminals and traffic, but until now, there has been no central agency collecting port data. The designation itself wouldn’t give any new taxing authority to any local body.

“This is an area where port efficiency is not necessarily measured by ton-miles, but how efficiently can you move grain from the distributed areas along the waterways in the heart of the Corn Belt where it is grown to local, often small, multimodal terminals dispersed along the narrow waterways,” Sinkler says.  “The geographically restricted waterways above Locks and Dam 26 are what connect the heart of this major commodity-producing region to global markets. It is past time that we upgraded some of our waterborne commerce-related infrastructure, and the accompanying micro-multimodal connections.  MRPEIWI will give us the opportunity to better develop, manage and upgrade our narrow waterways at the local level along Marine Highway 35 above Locks and Dam 26.”

Since an article in The Waterways Journal on Sinkler’s efforts appeared last August, the concept has increasingly caught the attention of civic leaders. Sinkler has been asked to write pieces for Seaport and Eddy magazines.  Local media have been enthusiastic about the idea.

Sinkler, a former commander of the Rock Island Engineer District, was also director of water infrastructure for The Nature Conservancy’s North America Water Program and principal strategic advisor to the commander of the Corps of Engineers. He is currently the chief operating officer of Streamside Systems, along with being a senior advisor with Dawson & Associates.

He is optimistic about the decision. “This recognition will be a huge milestone in Iowa’s economic development and waterborne commerce historical timeline,” he said. “It will be nice to finally get Iowa (as a state) registered on the U.S. port lists. Uninformed decisions continue to be made in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere because the Corn Belt Ports do not show up anywhere on those lists.”