Ports & Terminals

Agreements Position Cairo Port As Potential Container Shipping Hub

Agreements announced September 15 could position a new port being developed in Cairo, Ill., as a national logistics and distribution hub for container shipping using state-of-the-art vessels running on liquefied natural gas.

The Alexander-Cairo Port, which is being developed at Upper Mississippi River Mile 5.7, and the Plaquemines Port, located at Mile 50 to 55 on the Lower Mississippi River, have both signed agreements to provide intermodal container-handling services for American Patriot Container Transport’s next-generation container shipping vessels.

American Patriot’s patented liner vessels are designed to transport as many as 2,375 twenty-foot-equivalent length containers (TEUs), the equivalent of six trainloads of cargo or 2,375 semi-trucks, while a hybrid design can carry up to approximately 1,700 TEUs, according to a press release from Aileron Communications. The release also said the vessels can safely travel upriver at three times the speed of traditional inland tows, providing faster shipping times and cost savings of up to 45 percent over other options. Because they maximize cargo capacity and use liquefied natural gas (LNG) as fuel, the American Patriot vessels are also designed to greatly reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of shipping, logistical costs and rail and truck congestion.

Plaquemines Port announced August 13 that it is developing a container terminal capable of handling 22,000-TEU class container vessels moving goods to and from international markets via the Gulf of Mexico. The Cairo port is expected to serve as a link between the Midwest, the new Plaquemines terminal and global markets.

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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced August 4 that the state of Illinois is providing $40 million to the Cairo-Alexander Port District through the Rebuild Illinois capital plan for the development of the port. He also announced the immediate release of $4 million to fund final engineering, permitting and site preparation.

“Sitting at the intersection of North America’s two greatest, largest rivers, Cairo represents an enormous economic opportunity for investors, for the state of Illinois and for our working families,” Pritzker said during the announcement ceremony. “Eighty percent of inland barge traffic passes by this city every day. That represents a wealth of untapped potential sailing by, but not any longer.”

The Alexander-Cairo Port is to be built just upriver of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, west of Cairo and on the left descending bank at an area commonly known as Eliza Point. It is slated for 350 acres of land owned by the city of Cairo and managed by the Cairo Public Utility Company, the city’s nonprofit electric, gas and internet provider.

“The shipping industry is evolving rapidly and creating a huge opportunity for state-of-the-art inland ports like the one being developed here in Cairo,” said Sal Litrico, CEO of American Patriot Container Transport. “We’re proud to partner with Alexander-Cairo  Port District as we develop a cost-efficient and more environmentally friendly shipping option to  help keep America more competitive in the global markets.”

Several industry professionals have noted the largely untapped potential of container shipping on the inland waterways, especially for the global trade of items such as agricultural products and building materials.

“The Mississippi River is the key to unlocking the Midwest’s supply chain advantages, and the new port in Cairo will provide a direct link to the global maritime trade sector that is set to double in the next 10 years,” said Sandy Sanders, executive director of the Plaquemines Port Harbor & Terminal District. “We’re looking forward to working with Cairo to help drive economic growth all along the Mississippi River.”

The river industry is already familiar with Cairo, with more tonnage and volume passing through the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers annually than the Panama Canal, as southern Illinois Sen. Dale Fowler has repeated several times while shepherding funding for the Cairo port through the legislative process and again at the announcement ceremony.

Despite the current lack of a public port, American Commercial Barge Line, CGB Waterfront Services LLC and American River Transportation Company (ARTCO) have fleeting facilities in or near Cairo, and the Economy Boat Store is located across the Ohio River in Wickliffe, Ky. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and CGB have grain terminals in nearby Mound City, Ill., and Bunge North America has its soybean processing facility within Cairo’s city limits.

The economic development provided by a port is needed in Cairo, which had a population of around 15,000 in the early 1960s before economic and racial tensions came to a head. The population has dwindled to fewer than 2,000 people today. The city no longer has a grocery or a pharmacy, and many buildings are derelict. A 2018 report on National Public Radio noted that no new private homes had been built within the city limits in 50 years.

“The Alexander-Cairo Port will provide a resource that American industry needs to reach national and global markets, while creating economic growth and good jobs for Southern Illinois in the process,” said Larry Klein, chairman of the Alexander-Cairo Port District. “We’re honored to partner with these leaders in the industry and look forward to building a facility that is ready for the future of global shipping.” Todd Ely, lead consultant for the port district and president of Ely Consulting Group in Springfield, Ill., added, “The agreements we’re announcing today move us toward that goal and will attract a wide range of industries to Cairo.”

Ely has estimated the port will need a total capital investment of $125 million to $150 million made possible by public-private partnerships.

The Alexander-Cairo Port Authority has existed on paper since 2010 and has had a full complement of officers since 2014. Those officers have spent the past eight years planning the development of a riverport terminal to include intermodal rail design capable of handling both containers and other cargoes and high-speed cranes as well as other capabilities needed to support modern container shipping logistical requirements. The port will also serve as a hub for moving bulk agricultural products and other materials for domestic and global markets.