Corn Belt Ports Expand, Fourth Corn Belt Port Federally Listed
Regional leaders in the Upper Mississippi River region cheered and welcomed the designation of the Northern Grain Belt Ports, approved by the U.S. Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center and the Navigation and Civil Works Decision Support Center on December 8. The designation means the port district will be listed and ranked on the annual U.S. Leading Ports List. It’s the fourth such port statistical district to be organized and recognized in the area since 2019.
Proponents say these designations capture and represent the true value of port and terminal activity inside the designated areas and help focus investment.
The Northern Grain Belt Ports district is centered on the I-90 crossing of the Upper Mississippi River and includes the historic inland port cities of La Crosse and Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, and the ports of Wabasha, Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota. The port district includes seven counties in Wisconsin and four counties in Minnesota. The Mississippi River Regional Planning commission is the lead regional planning agency.
While this recognition completes the ‘family” of newly designated Corn Belt Ports in the region, the work of the team behind these efforts is far from over, as it seeks to further incorporate unincorporated areas and terminals into the four Corn Belt Ports.
Corn Belt ‘Family’ Complete
Robert Sinkler celebrated the landmark in a January 4 press release, saying, “[T]his approval completes the ‘family’ of regional ports inside the Corn Belt’s lock and dam system. The effort to get all of the regional Corn Belt Ports listed and ranked on the annual U.S. Leading Ports List began in the fall of 2019. Hundreds of people and dozens of organizations were involved in getting all four Corn Belt Ports across the finish line (approved) in about three years.” He called the joint effort “an incredible grassroots feat.”
Sinkler is the water resources infrastructure director for the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District (TransPORT), Tri-State Corn Belt Ports executive coordinating director and a former commander of the Rock Island Engineer District. He has been closely involved with the efforts of organizing the formerly isolated riverports, terminals and counties into Port Statistical Areas.
“There was a conspicuous absence of federally recognized ports between Wisconsin and Minnesota on the Upper Mississippi River,” Sinkler said. “The recent federal recognition of the Northern Grain Belt Ports fills this gap. It is hard to invest in a port that doesn’t exist, so the Corn Belt Ports team is very glad that the Northern Grain Belt Ports are now finally on the map. Navigable waterways without inland ports are just a big river, but navigable waterways with inland ports are an essential part of our national and global supply chains. Farmers in the region did need a federally recognized port of loading.”
“This designation will make the region more competitive for federal government, state government and non-profit organization investment,” he said. “This marks the first time in history that Wisconsin’s ports on the Upper Mississippi River are federally listed and ranked, like Wisconsin’s ports on the Great Lakes.”
In 2019 the Corn Belt Ports collectively handled 96 million tons of cargo on the Upper Mississippi River and the Illinois Waterway. The Corn Belt Ports within the Corn Belt’s lock and dam system have attracted more than $1.25 billion in transportation and natural infrastructure investment since 2021 from federal and state government organizations and non-profit organizations.
The other three Corn Belt Ports are the following:
• The Mid-America Port Commission (MAPC) is defined by the confluence of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and it is centered on the Quincy, Ill.–Hannibal, Mo. area. It includes the I-72 intersection with both the Upper Mississippi River and the Illinois Waterway. The MAPC was first federally listed and ranked in 2020.
• The Upper Mississippi River Ports (UMRP) district is managed by a collaboration of five regional planning agencies, is centered on the Quad Cities, and it includes riverfront counties north to the port city of Dubuque. It includes the I-74, I-80 and I-280 intersections with the Upper Mississippi River. The UMRP was first federally listed and ranked in 2020.
• The Illinois Waterway Ports (ILWW) district is centered on the river cities of Peoria and Ottawa, includes 10 counties within three regional planning agencies and encompasses 175.5 river miles. The ILWW Ports include the Havana, Heart of Illinois, Illinois Valley, Ottawa, and Seneca regional port districts. They partner with the Joliet Regional Port District to advance common Illinois Waterway goals. The port district includes the I-474, I-74, I-180, I-39, I-55 and I-80 intersections with the Illinois Waterway. The ILWW Ports district was first federally listed and ranked in 2021.
Each Corn Belt Port individually is a Top 50 principal U.S. port based on freight tonnage. All are on Global Trade Magazine’s annual “Top 50 Power Ports List.”
Priorities For 2023
The remaining priorities of the Corn Belt Ports team make up an ambitious agenda. They are:
• Add Calhoun County, Ill., to the Mid-America Port Commission Port Statistical Area (PSA). Currently Calhoun County is the only Upper Mississippi River county in the Mid-America Port Commission region not part of a federally recognized PSA. Two of the three Corn Belt Ports’ top priority 1,200-foot lock retrofits are on dams in Calhoun County, and Lincoln County directly across the river in Missouri is included in the Mid-America Port;
• Add Greene County, Ill., to the Mid-America Port Commission Port Statistical Area. Currently Greene County is the only riverfront county on the Illinois Waterway that is not in a federally recognized port statistical area;
• Expand the Minneapolis-St. Paul Urban Port to include four to seven riverfront counties. Currently up to 50 percent of the freight tonnage being shipped in and out of the Minneapolis- St. Paul metropolitan area is not being attributed to a federally recognized port, which, the team says, undervalues the impact of waterborne commerce in the area;
• Develop and implement a strategy to accelerate delivery of the seven 1,200-foot locks authorized for construction by Congress in 2007;
• Accelerate delivery of ecosystem restoration projects that are part of the Navigation and Ecosystem Restoration Program (NESP). Focus on areas that have been underserved by the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program;
• Ensure there is a program in place to reduce infrastructure risk from current and future climate-informed river conditions in the Corn Belt Ports Region. Update engineering standards as appropriate; and
• Better align federal, state, county and city port entities throughout the Corn Belt Ports Region.
Regional leaders involved in the designation efforts praised the landmark. Denise Bulat, executive director of the Bi-State Regional Commission between Illinois and Iowa and the primary transportation planning lead for establishing the Upper Mississippi River Ports (Illinois and Iowa), said, “We are pleased that the Mississippi River Regional Planning Commission to our north has created a port structure similar to ours between Wisconsin and Minnesota. That will assist us in more effectively attracting funding for regional transportation programs that benefit us all.”
Rodney Knittel, the Illinois Farm Bureau director of transportation and infrastructure, said, “The creation of the Corn Belt Ports has been a very successful grass-roots effort to bring attention to the value of waterborne commerce inside the Corn Belt’s lock and dam system. We are seeing the infrastructure investment benefits of this designation. The recent federal recognition of the Northern Grain Belt Ports will have a positive impact on the entire Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway System.”
“It will help attract more investment to the Upper Mississippi River between Wisconsin and Minnesota now that the Northern Grain Belt Ports are listed and ranked like the Great Lakes ports in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” said Chris Smith, director of operations for the Corn Belt Ports and project manager for establishing the Northern Grain Belt Ports. “Our strategy has been to capture the freight tonnage handled in the Northern Grain Belt Ports area and translate that into increased direct and indirect investment for both transportation and natural infrastructure in our region.”
Bob Gollnik, the Mississippi River Regional Planning Commission’s lead planner for the Northern Grain Belt Ports, said, “[T]he initial endorsement and support provided by the La Crosse Joint Board of Harbor Commissioners helped to reinforce the importance of this effort. Their acknowledgement that not all tonnage reported in Minnesota and Wisconsin is attributed to a federally recognized port, underrepresented the value of waterborne commerce to the region. It does not represent the value of the region to our national and global supply chains.”
Dr. Anshu Singh, director of sustainability and conservation for the Northern Grain Belt Ports and, according to Sinkler, the “thought leader” behind the concept of the Corn Belt Ports, said, “We are thrilled that we now have federally recognized transportation reaches on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway System that enable us to effectively implement interagency integrated water resources management at watershed scale. Sustainability and natural infrastructure are at the very heart of the Corn Belt Ports.”