Brandon Road Agreement Could Be Near
Construction of the Brandon Road Interbasin Project could be delayed if a Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) isn’t signed between the Corps of Engineers and the state of Illinois by September 30, but for the first time Illinois officials said they are hopeful to reach a resolution by the deadline.
The project is designed to halt the spread of invasive carp from the river system into the Great Lakes. It includes construction of an engineered channel as well as bubble, sound and electric barriers, an automatic barge-clearing deterrent and a flushing lock at Brandon Road Lock and Dam, located on the Des Plaines River near Joliet, Ill. The state of Illinois is the non-federal sponsor for the project and has partnered with the state of Michigan to fund its 10 percent of the construction cost, a funding formula established by the 2022 Water Resources Development Act. The federal government will pay for the remaining 90 percent of construction from its general fund.
Illinois and Michigan also provided 35 percent of the pre-engineering design phase funds, and agreements allowed the acceleration of those funds to continue project design this year while the stalled PPA made it impossible to use construction funding.
Project Agreement Ahead?
During a quarterly update webinar August 29, Natalie Phelps-Finnie, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), spoke specifically about the PPA, which Illinois has refused to sign in part because of concerns about acquiring real estate from Midwest Generation. Midwest Generation owns the rights to a portion of the riverbed needed for construction.
“We are committed to seeing this PPA be signed and this project come to fruition,” Phelps-Finnie said.
She later added, “This administration is committed, and we are, I would say, for the first time since I’ve been aware of Brandon Road, very excited and hopeful about how quick things are moving. We do still have hurdles to clear, but we, I think for the first time, see light at the end of the tunnel that this PPA signature is possible and probably very, very soon.”
Assistant IDNR Director John Rogner went into more specifics, saying that Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, who both represent Illinois, were instrumental in helping the project partners to connect with Midwest Generation.
“Quite honestly, the communications with the landowner haven’t been perhaps as direct and as quick as we would have liked as well, but things have changed,” Rogner said. “We’re moving quite quickly now.”
Illinois has been concerned about potential environmental contamination that could exist on the Midwest Generation property in Joliet. The state has been unable to test the land for any potential environmental issues, and that creates a liability associated with acquisition, Rogner said.
However, early in August, Midwest Generation requested a proposal for land acquisition from Illinois DNR, Rogner said. It was provided, and Midwest sent a list of clarifying questions in less than a week. Rogner said IDNR intended to provide answers to those questions before the end of August.
“We’re both focused now, I think, on the end of September for an agreement because we know it has implications for the project, and we are going to do everything we can to get us and Midwest Gen toward an agreement in principle by then so we can keep this thing moving with no interruptions,” Rogner said. “We can’t predict with absolute certainty because we haven’t really had discussions about some of the, perhaps, thornier details yet, but that is our goal, and we intend to keep moving on it.”
Rogner also noted that the Brandon Road project remains on the agenda for discussion at the October 13-15 Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers Summit, to take place in Cleveland, Ohio.
Kimberly Thomas, deputy district engineer for the Rock Island Engineer District, said the project continues to move forward, with design for the initial phase, Increment I-A, on track to be complete by the end of September.
“I can assure you that, along with Director Phelps-Finnie, over the past several months we have outlined and reconciled many important considerations of this agreement, and we are drawing ever closer to that executable agreement,” she said. “So, please bear with us and know that while these negotiations have continued, our design team has not missed a beat, and we’ve continued to progress the design of Increment I-A to the scheduled 100 percent design milestone on September 30.”
Thomas also reported that the project partners have continued to advance the included invasive species barriers through laboratory experimentation, modeling, field testing and design “and now stand on the threshold of moving into actual fabrication and construction in coming months.”
Scott Whitney, chief of project management for the Rock Island Engineer District, agreed, saying, “We’re pretty confident we can build these things, they will operate as we have designed them, and they will function to actually restrict the movements of these fish. What we have seen in the laboratory and the field testing have both corroborated the efficacy of what we’re providing here.”
Both Thomas and Whitney discussed steps taken toward advancing the project over the past several months.
In January, the project received another $47.8 million in funding in the president’s budget, bringing the total of federal allocations to $274 million “that awaits us on the other side of the PPA signing,” Whitney said.
In March, he said, the Corps certified a new total project certified cost of just over $1.146 billion, an increase of less than 12 percent over the last cost estimate, calculated four years ago. The cost includes a 52 percent contingency designed to account for market risk, he said.
“Unfortunately, with the cost of inflation and other new costs of construction, a lot of other projects are seeing their costs go up significantly, so we were pretty pleased that we were able to contain that total project certified cost of $1.1 billion,” Whitney said. “That’s still a pretty significant project, a mega project as we call it here, and there’s still a lot of room for additional savings and additional refinement to that design.”
In June, both Illinois and Michigan passed budgets that, together, are expected to pay for their entire portion of funding construction. Illinois allocated $50 million. Michigan added $64 million.
The project’s technical team visited the site in July, while the lock was dewatered for scheduled maintenance and repairs. “Seeing the space in its dewatered state allowed the team to better evaluate their design and overcome the unique challenges of developing a project that will primarily exist under water,” the newsletter said, adding that it was a unique opportunity since the lock has not been dewatered since 1995.
Six professional staff members from the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee, along with Durbin and Michael Connor, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, were among those who made site visits in August while the lock was dewatered as part of simultaneous closures and repairs to several locks on the Illinois Waterway taking place through the end of September.
“During the dewatering, the Brandon Road Interbasin Project’s environmental science team got a rare opportunity to monitor the chamber and conduct a fish assessment as the water levels dropped,” the project team noted on its quarterly online newsletter for August. “A variety of small fish, including emerald shiners and gizzard shad, were observed in the shallow pools of water near the end of the dewatering process, but no invasive carp were seen.”
In August, Thomas said, the project was featured on an episode of the PBS series “Human Footprint.”
Meanwhile, the physical modeling team at the Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Miss., has been working to fine-tune design elements for the project features and to continue to find solutions for better operations of both the flushing lock and bubble deterrent, the newsletter noted.
Preliminary work on Increment I-B has also started, with a roundtable discussion to gather input on rock excavation techniques scheduled soon.
Whitney said that because the project team has focused on finalizing design elements this year, design of the first phase of the project is about one year ahead of schedule.
Once the PPA is signed, Whitney said, he anticipated that the first construction contract, to fabricate the speakers for the sound barrier, could be awarded in as little as 45 days. It will then take roughly 12 months for the first major construction contract to be awarded, he said.
Construction on the first phase of the project, which will include all the barriers and an upstream boat ramp to access the site, is anticipated to take three to 3-1/2 years, he said. That phase of construction is expected to take place “in the wet” with no closures to navigation, but it will require navigational width restrictions, he said.
Following completion of the first phase, additional contracts would be awarded for Increment I-B, Increment II and Increment III to complete the project.
The Corps has said that the last two increments would both require multiple closures to complete construction “in the dry,” previously estimating that five, 45-day closures were possible but adding that representatives continued to work with industry to finalize a timetable for construction that would minimize disruptions to navigation as much as possible.