Ports & Terminals

Plans Move Forward For Ports In Cairo, West Kentucky

Port projects near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in southern Illinois and western Kentucky are moving forward, with the Illinois project expected to break ground as soon as late spring.

Alexander-Cairo Port

The Illinois Department of Transportation signed the first round of intergovernmental grant agreements the first week of December, formally allocating the first $4 million of the $40 million promised by the state to the Alexander-Cairo Port District.

“So we’re off and running,” said Sen. Dale Fowler, who has championed the establishment of the port in his district, which includes Cairo. “That’s a very important first step.”

The first $4 million is to pay for remaining engineering, design and site clearing fees.

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Mark Glaab, the port district’s vice president, said the district has contracted with Trinity Consulting for both permitting and environmental studies.

Following completion of those studies, the port district can begin clearing the property. Of course, Fowler was quick to say, that’s assuming that both environmental and archaeological studies don’t turn up any unknown issues.

“We still have some I’s to dot and T’s to cross,” he said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced August 4 in a ceremony at Magnolia Manor in Cairo that the state is providing $40 million in funding through the Rebuild Illinois capital plan to construct the port west of the city at Upper Mississippi River Mile 5.7 on the left descending bank, 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 area is protected by recently reinforced 500-year floodplain levees and is ice-free year-round. Pritzker noted that the port is the largest project in southern Illinois in a generation.

Although there is not room for a slackwater port, the area does have consistent deep water, about 50 feet deeper than the Cairo gauge, said Larry Klein, chairman of the port district, which has existed on paper since 2010 and had a full complement of officers since 2014.

The district has worked for eight years to obtain funding for the port, receiving a $1 million allocation in the state budget in 2018 along with a $100,000 grant from the Rauner Family Foundation that allowed preliminary planning, design and engineering work as well as the beginning of a lengthy environmental permitting process that includes soil composition, endangered species and archeological assessments.

Plans call for the port to include an intermodal rail design capable of handling both containers and other cargoes, with 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. The property includes a no-longer-used spur of the Canadian National Railway, which still utilizes nearby rail and river crossings. The port district has already been in discussion with the railway about returning short-line rail access to the port property.

A Northern Illinois University economic impact study showed the port’s construction will create 500 jobs and more than $100 million in economic activity, along with additional ancillary business creation opportunities.

Fowler has said the port will be able to reach 100 million people within eight hours. It also will allow freight transportation straight to the Gulf of Mexico without any locking required.

The port is moving forward with signing agreements with major companies interested in its potential, Fowler said. The agreements do not commit funds but do indicate interest. “Some of them have been talking potential investment dollars,” he said.

At least five companies have signed such agreements, and the port district has also recently begun talking with two more, he said.

Todd Ely, the lead consultant for the port district and president of Ely Consulting Group of Springfield, Ill., has said the port will need a total capital investment of $125 million to $150 million made possible by public-private partnerships.

Boosting those efforts toward investment was the announcement September 15 that The Alexander-Cairo Port 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.

“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,” Sal Litrico, CEO of American Patriot Container Transport, said previously. “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.”

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.

“I think the long-haul transportation of containers is going to be one of the larger driving forces with the success of this port,” Fowler said, adding that everything he has seen suggests that the transportation of containers is expected to grow tremendously along the inland waterways system in the next two years.

The overall picture is one of slow but steady progress expected into 2021, Fowler said.

“Everything is still moving forward, and I feel like it’s finally moving forward at a more rapid pace,” he said. “Even though there has always been progression with the project, we have more and more companies looking at it.”
Also, he said, he is beginning to see some reinvestment by entrepreneurs in retail businesses within the city.

“More people are making investment in the city of Cairo,” he said. “A new restaurant just opened. A new laundromat just came in. More people are coming in and buying and rehabbing homes.”

 The housing investment is especially significant. A 2018 report on National Public Radio noted that no new private homes had been built within the city limits in 50 years. The city also no longer has a grocery or pharmacy.

Currently, Cairo doesn’t have a gas station, either, but Fowler hopes as people see work beginning on the port it will spur that development and, perhaps, also generate interest in building a truck stop.

“The main thing is we have to get access to fuel in Alexander County or close,” Fowler said. “There is revitalized interest in that due to the progression.”

Western Kentucky Riverport Authority

Just downstream of the planned Cairo port and south of the confluence, plans are also moving forward for the Western Kentucky Riverport Authority on the Lower Mississippi River at Wickliffe.

An economic feasibility study for the port is about halfway done, said Bill Miller, whom the port authority’s board of directors has hired as a consultant on the project. He expects the study to be completed in the first quarter of 2021. Miller was most recently executive director of the Paducah/McCracken County Riverport Authority in western Kentucky and also has decades of experience in roles at the Port of Virginia.

“Part of the feasibility study is to see who could use it now and who could in two or three years,” Miller said.

The riverport authority has contracted with Commonwealth Economics to complete the study with funding from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant as well as from the Delta Regional Authority and local economic development funds. The study will also help to determine which of the three sites to move forward with and whether to build a slackwater or in-stream port, Miller said.

The state’s four most western counties of Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton joined forces and are working together to establish the port. The port authority was registered with the Kentucky secretary of state as an official entity in July 2019.  It replaced the Ballard-Wickliffe Port Authority, a single-county effort to establish a port that Ballard County had led for about 10 years beginning in 1992, Ballard County Judge Executive Todd Cooper said.

The four counties are now working together to establish the port at one of three sites, all of which are within the city limits of Wickliffe, Cooper said. The preferred site is on property belonging to Phoenix Paper, located at Lower Mississippi Mile 950.2, where Mayfield Creek flows into the Mississippi River. It is just south of the confluence, which is at Mile 953 of the Lower Mississippi and Mile 0 of the Ohio River.

Phoenix Paper reopened the mill last year. The mill had formerly operated as Westvaco, MeadWestvaco and Verso before being shuttered in July 2016. One of the former operators used three Mississippi River mooring cells, which are still in place and accessible from property the riverport authority has optioned, Cooper said. The riverport authority hopes that with Phoenix Paper’s recently announced plans to build a paper recycling facility on part of its property that the recycling facility will eventually become one of the port’s tenants, although Phoenix Paper has not made any commitment to do so.

The optioned Phoenix Paper site is roughly one-half mile west of the paper mill, Cooper said. It is roughly 40 to 50 acres and includes about 2,000 feet of river frontage. A site study is also looking at two other sites: where Beech Creek flows into the Mississippi at Mile 951.4 and where Willow Creek flows into the Mississippi at Mile 951.5. Results of the study will be submitted to the Corps of Engineers for guidance moving forward. The Corps has already completed a federal interest determination study between February and October 2019 concerning a need for a port at the location.

As in Cairo, port officials in Kentucky are also reaching out to potential port investors and tenants.

“There is some interest in it,” Miller said.

Cooper said previously that businesses from states including Illinois, Texas and Louisiana have reached out to the riverport authority with a desire to invest in it. He has also spoken to another local company involved in the transportation of minerals and aggregates that might be interested in moving some of its products by barge, he said.

The port is also in the midst of finalizing documents necessary before signing a contract for Phase 1 environmental and archaeological studies. Miller said that contract could be in place before the end of January.

The Kentucky port officials say that rather than creating competition, a second port in the area provides more opportunity for customers interested in doing business near the rivers’ confluence. Port officials in both Kentucky and Illinois have frequently quoted data showing that more freight volume and tonnage passes through the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers each year than what goes through the Panama Canal.

Cooper called having two ports in the area a win/win situation, noting how both projects will help bring about good-paying jobs to the area’s workforce.

“We’re excited and happy for Cairo for their development,” Miller said previously.

Wickliffe-Cairo Bridge

A project that will benefit both planned ports is the completion of a new bridge carrying U.S. 51, U.S. 60 and U.S. 62 between Cairo and Wickliffe over the Ohio River.

The current, 82-year-old bridge is located at River Mile 980.4, just upstream of its confluence with the Mississippi River. It is the longest bridge in the state of Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC).

The bridge is listed in fair condition, although it has narrow lanes and shoulders. It opened to traffic on November 11, 1938. Deck and joint work designed to increase the bridge’s life expectancy until a new bridge can be built has recently taken place, limiting the traffic to alternating flows of one lane each for part of the summer and early fall.

That bridge’s replacement is already in the planning works, with construction slated to begin no sooner than 2026 or 2027, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. Recommendations call for it to be built 1,000 feet upstream of the existing bridge, minimizing any impacts to the existing bridge as it is being built. That will be important both for traffic on the bridge and below it as towboat pilots navigate through the spans of the existing bridge as well as the piers for the new bridge, pilots indicated as part of a simulator study, held at the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Maritime Education in Paducah in June. Keith Todd, a spokesman for the KYTC district 1 office in McCracken County, said some fleeting areas would be lost to the new bridge. However, he said, once the existing bridge is removed, there would be additional space at that site.

Kentucky transportation officials have recommended building a wider, two-lane bridge instead of the four-lane bridge originally hoped for by port representatives. Fowler said talks continue about the ultimate number of lanes but that he feels better after talking more in-depth to those working on the bridge project.

“They are extremely confident that a two-lane would suffice, which would include the enhanced truck traffic for opportunities such as the port,” he said.

A new intersection tying the bridge’s southern Illinois terminus with existing roadways would also be included as part of the plans. That would allow for better traffic flow, either into southeast Missouri over a 1929 bridge over the Mississippi River, 1,000 feet from the Ohio River bridge’s terminus, and on to I-55 or in the other direction, through Cairo to I-57, a major connector north through Illinois to Chicago and beyond. On the Kentucky side, a new bridge would connect to a four-lane segment of U.S. 60 in neighboring McCracken County that extends all the way to I-24 in Paducah and I-69 nearby.

Several businesses serving the commercial navigation industry already exist on both sides of the river. American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL), CGB Waterfront Services LLC and American River Transportation Company (ARTCO) have fleeting facilities in or near Cairo or Wickliffe.

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.

Six river-related companies are physically located on the Mississippi River at Wickliffe, and others have company headquarters in Paducah but use the riverfronts at Wickliffe or Cairo to move products, Cooper said. Among them, James Marine has its boat and barge repair business and Economy Boat Store its butcher shop, grocery and marine supplies warehouse in Wickliffe. Big River Propeller is located a few miles away in LaCenter, the Ballard County seat of government.

Miller said he hopes the Western Kentucky Riverport Authority port project grows that industry even more.

“It’s going to be good for economic development in the region, and we’re excited to go forward with it,” he said.