Ports & Terminals

Port Of Cairo’s Hopeful Future Sketched 

The team that is developing the port of Cairo, Ill., (formally the Alexander-Cairo Port District) laid out what team members hope will be its success in an hour-long webinar October 5. Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the port’s prime location once made it a key transportation hub, a past its developers hope to recreate as a bright new future. Making a big, hopeful bet on that future, the state of Illinois has granted $40 million to develop plans for the port. Construction is due to begin in 2022.

The webinar team was introduced by Peter Gray, director of client services for Aileron Communications, a firm specializing in “complex, high-stakes engagements.” Todd Ely, president of Ely Consulting Group, has spent 10 years on this project and has become the effective lead for the principal contractors. 

Ely put together a “first-class team,” he said, headed by Vickerman & Associates, which has specialized in port and intermodal planning and design for 35 years and has worked on 67 out of 90 U.S. deep-water ports. Vickerman has put together the Master Strategic and Conceptual Plan for the port. Another contractor is Omaha-based engineer consulting firm HDR, founded in 1917 and ranked in the Top five for transportation projects and top seven for marine-related projects, according to Ely. 

Altogether, the contracting team has between 40 and 60 people working full-time on the Port of Cairo project each week. 

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Strategic Advantages

Ely noted the port location’s strategic advantages. About 80 percent of all inland barge traffic passes by Cairo. The site is served by the Canadian National Class 1 railroad (one of only five in the U.S.), three major interstates and a regional airport. There are no locks and dams between Cairo and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s already been declared a U.S. Federal Opportunity Zone and a State of Illinois Enterprise Zone, and it has a local tax-increment financing (TIF) district.

The port will seek to become a foreign trade zone and Customs port of entry, so that containers can be cleared for export directly at the port. A Customs building in downtown Cairo witnesses that the port once had this designation.

Greenfield Development

All of the port’s potential partners and interested parties want it to be a “greenfield” port, Ely said, using and promoting low-carbon solutions. All the port’s proposed equipment will be “clean, electric” equipment, designed to save time and energy by moving cargoes in one lift instead of two or three. He then laid out a brief timeline on port progress, from its establishment in 2010 through a $40 million grant from the state of Illinois and a project labor agreement signed in April (WJ, May 4).

John Vickerman, president of Vickerman & Associates LLC, stressed that the entire project is built around market demand. The formula used to calculate demand was the same one used by bond traders: forecast demand minus capacity equals need. To mine the data necessary to calculate, the team turned to Datamyne, the world’s largest database on trade, with information from 50 countries and 15 million bills of lading. 

Vickerman pointed out that once the Lower Mississippi River is dredged to a depth of 50 feet, every inland port on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers will be between 50 and 75 miles closer to “open ocean”—i.e. the deep-draft vessels of the Gulf. He showed a graphic from the Port of Seattle and Tacoma demonstrating that the Mississippi River heartland will be the “container port trade battleground” in which Eastern and Western ports will fight for cargoes and customers. 

Omni-Port Concept

Vickerman said the port is being designed according to what he called an “omni-port concept” that will enable it to handle a variety of cargoes, both bulk and containerized, without reconfiguring hard infrastructure. Targeted commodities include containers; non-GMO soybeans; dried distillers’ grains and soybean meal; coiled steel; scrap metal; fertilizer; biomass/biofuel pellets; high-value liquids; and refrigerated containers for export. Ely said this projection tallies exactly with the types of inquiries the port team has been getting. 

Vickerman referred to the innovative, patented container vessels currently planned by American Patriot Holdings. While they offer a number of advantages, he said, and carry many more containers (between 1,824 and 3,244 depending on the size of the vessel) the port would also be able to handle containers on deck barges or hopper barges. “We would love to have [the new container vessel], but we don’t have to have it,” he said.

At full build-out, the team has calculated the port could handle a container throughput of 315,150 TEUs in 185,382 total lifts, and a bulk capacity of 8.2 million short tons a year. This projection assumes a 365-day-a year, three shift-operation. 

Economic Benefits

During a Q&A period, Vickerman said the port district has already signed a number of cooperative agreements with neighboring ports in Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. “We believe there is enough land capacity and waterfront development for Cairo to become a logistics hub,” he said. “It will be more than a single-service port.” He added that its infrastructure will be at or above the 500-year FEMA floodplain. 

That will be welcome news the residents of Cairo, which has been almost depopulated by poverty and currently lacks a grocery store, gas station or pharmacy. The team spoke about the direct and indirect economic benefits port development will bring to the city. Ely said he has received inquiries from business offering truck stop service, rail car repairs, diesel repair, and barge fueling services. 

Next year, said Vickerman, his firm will begin a study of the port’s potential impact on the 10 southernmost counties in Illinois. Vickerman and Ely offered thanks to state Sen. Dale Fowler, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Sens Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and other elected officials who have shown strong bipartisan support for the revival of the port.