Contract In Place, Payment Authorized To Move Cairo Port Project Forward Again
A port project planned for near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in Cairo, Ill., is taking another step forward with a contract in place for environmental studies and money authorized for payment.
The Alexander-Cairo Port District signed a contract with HDR Engineering in March and recently received its first bill to reimburse the contractor, said Zach Gowin, who has been on the board since December 2020 but took over as chairman in March.
The contract is for up to $3.4 million and includes soil samples, threatened/endangered species studies and looking into any possible historic preservation issues. It also includes studying to what degree wetlands on the project site could be an issue with construction and to what degree remediation is required, Gowin said. The studies are designed to support applications for environmental permits that would be necessary for construction, he added.
The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) announced in October 2022 that it was releasing $3.4 million for the project. While the state comptroller’s office said last month that none of that money had been disbursed, Gowin said that the reason why is that until recently no invoices had been received from the contractor for payment, but that had now changed.
“We’re starting to see the work being done for the environmental studies that needs to be done before we can get to permitting,” he said.
He anticipated the environmental studies would take a minimum of one year, but he said that period could extend depending on what issues are found and any follow-up work needed.
IDOT recently authorized an additional $790,000 for planning and development at the port. Like the $3.4 million approved in October, this amount is also part of a $40 million investment originally appropriated in the 2019 Rebuild Illinois capital improvements program.
Gowin stressed that the authorized funds can’t be disbursed until they are invoiced by the contractor for the pre-development and planning work.
While the HDR Engineering contract is currently the only contract in place, he added that the board has spoken to some other firms and is moving closer to signing other agreements.
In August, the port district was also awarded a $150,000 federal grant from the Delta Regional Authority’s (DRA) Strategic Planning Program for development of a master plan that will identify the scope for port development.
“The Strategic Planning Program gives public entities across DRA’s footprint the ability to address long-standing issues and develop a roadmap for economic growth and revitalization,” federal co-chairman Dr. Corey Wiggins said in announcing grant recipients. “This investment will better position communities to maximize their economic development and basic public infrastructure opportunities.”
The DRA was established in 2000 as a formal framework for joint federal-state collaboration to promote and encourage economic development of the Lower Mississippi River and Alabama Black Belt regions. It includes 252 counties and parishes in parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state’s first investment in the port project in August 2020 during a visit to Cairo.
The port is to be built on 350 acres west of Cairo at Mississippi River Mile 5.7 on the left descending bank, an area commonly known as Eliza Point. In addition to the initial $40 million investment, he said, the state would immediately release $3.9 million to fund final engineering, permitting and site preparation.
A month later, Pritzker’s office announced that the Alexander-Cairo Port District and Plaquemines Port at Mile 50 to 55 on the Lower Mississippi River in Louisiana had signed memorandums of understanding to provide intermodal container-handling services for American Patriot Transport’s planned next-generation container shipping vessels.
In October 2021, port developers held a webinar and said construction was due to begin in 2022, with operations beginning as soon as 2024, and that a development team had between 40 and 60 people working full-time on the Port of Cairo project each week.
However, contracts pertaining to the project expired June 30, 2022, and no new contracts were signed until the contract with HDR Engineering in March of this year.
No Defined Timeline
Gowin declined to give an updated timeline for port construction, citing the project’s size and noting the studies just getting underway.
He added that while he thinks anyone in the past who has tried to formulate a timeline has given their best effort, “It’s not something that’s easily predicted.”
“When it comes to the timeline, sometimes I have to even remind myself this is an enormous project, even for our large state, and we’re not talking about retrofitting a port,” he said. “We’re talking about a port site that is covered in grass and trees right now. We’re starting from the beginning.”
Gowin said he fields questions about the port on a regular basis, especially as it has now been more than three years since the initial announcement.
“I can understand where folks might feel sort of disappointed in the time that it takes, but the real answer is it’s a blessing because we have the opportunity to build a port here that is going to be responsive to the needs of the market, responsive to the needs of the shippers and receivers, and we can incorporate it with new technology. We’re not having to retrofit anything. We have kind of a blank slate that a lot of other communities don’t have available to them, and we have tremendous support from the governor and all the other leaders at the state level.”
While making an unrelated appearance in Carterville, Ill., on August 25, Pritzker also addressed the Cairo port project. As reported by the website Capitol News Now, he said, “The Cairo port project is something that requires a lot of federal approvals. It requires the local organization to make sure that they have all their plans in place. And we’ve got to make sure that the businesses are lined up and understand what the timing will be. But to match all that up takes a few years, and that’s the process that we’re in now.”
Gowin said all port district members can do is take the project one step at a time and complete each step to the best of their ability.
“I feel good about the future of the project,” he said.
When asked what leads him to feel that way, he added, “I feel good about where we’re at because we continue to enjoy the support of the governor, the comptroller, IDOT and the legislators, and I haven’t seen the support waiver during the time I’ve been on the board.”
Additionally, he said a May 25 Supreme Court ruling in Sackett v. EPA, determining that “Waters of the United States” must have a continuous surface connection for purposes of Environmental Protection Agency regulation, could be helpful.
“It may make the project easier,” he said.
The overall plan for building the port continues to involve a public-private partnership to bring it to fruition, he said.
“That is something we intend to do in the future, and there has been work done and some interest shown,” he said, before declining to say more, citing confidentiality in any negotiations.
Gowin urged those who may have become concerned about not seeing any work taking place at the planned port site to wait a little longer and contrasted the port project with other plans for the region that were announced and then never came to fruition.
“There have been a lot of companies come in and make a lot of promises to us. … We’ve all dealt with this disappointment,” he said. “I think the difference this time is we have a governor who has seen the potential in our region, not just for the city of Cairo to do good things or for the county of Alexander but for all of southern Illinois, and I think this is going to be a benefit to the state and to the surrounding states and region.”
He added that the project continued to have great support in the legislature as well and leaders helping to find “the type of experts needed to build a project of this magnitude.”
Speaking frankly, Gowin said this project, unlike others, is not generated by people from outside the area who might be looking to take advantage of the community’s impoverishment.
“This is a project that the folks in Springfield are invested in and the people who sit on this board are invested in because we’ve invested our entire lives in this community,” he said.