A graphic shows details of the Brandon Road Interbasin Project, designed to prevent the spread of invasive carp from the rivers to the Great Lakes. It was announced July 1 that a project partnership agreement has been signed to move the project forward. (Graphic courtesy of the Rock Island Engineer District)
Locks and Dams

Brandon Road Project To Move Forward

Construction is set to begin on the Brandon Road Interbasin Project on a new schedule designed to prevent millions of dollars in delays to the navigation industry.

After months of postponements while extended negotiations took place, the states of Illinois and Michigan have signed a project partnership agreement with the Rock Island Engineer District, the district announced July 1. The project, located at Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Ill., is designed to keep invasive carp from spreading into the Great Lakes from the inland river system.

The project will include a flushing lock, automatic barge-clearing deterrent, sound system, bubble system and an electric barrier to prevent the fish from moving from the Des Plaines River, part of the Illinois Waterway, and up a series of canals into the Chicago River and eventually Lake Michigan.

The lock and dam has been identified as the critical pinch point where layered technologies could be used to stop invasive carp populations from moving into the Great Lakes, according to a news release from the Rock Island District. If the invasive carp become established in the Great Lakes, they could outcompete native species and greatly harm the ecosystems of the entire Great Lakes region and its more than $20 billion fishing and boating industries, the district said.

Schedule And Method Changes

Scott Whitney, chief of project management for the Rock Island District who is overseeing the project,

said the district is poised to award a contract this fall, which would allow rock excavation in the approach channel to take place between January 14 and March 11 next year. Doing so would coincide with the closure of Lockport Lock and Dam, immediately upstream of Brandon Road Lock on the Illinois Waterway.

“That’s going to significantly curb the amount of traffic that’s going through there,” he said. “This gives us a lot of breathing room, creating contract efficiency, savings and significantly minimizing impact to navigation.”

Previously, plans had called for 12-hour closures each day to remove 6 to 10 feet of rock from the bottom of the channel to allow for the future installation of some of the technology to prevent the carp’s spread. Those delays would have come at an estimated cost to the navigation industry of close to $2 million a day, Whitney said. The rock removal will now also take place “in the wet” instead of requiring a cofferdam, dewatering and then removing rock using explosives, a process that would have required multiple 45- to 60-day closures. In-the-wet construction should save the district at least two such dewaterings, Whitney said.

 The revised in-the-wet construction strategy, coupled with the Lockport closure period, are estimated to prevent approximately $80 million in navigation industry impacts, Whitney said.

Once the channel is deepened, he said there will be periodic 12-hour closures to install deterrents, including the bubble barrier, sound barrier, automated barge-clearing deterrent, control buildings and an upstream boat ramp for emergency and scientific vessels.

The construction of Increment II, the engineered channel, scheduled for construction between 2026 and 2030, will require at least three “in-the-dry” closure periods, spread at least a year apart to minimize impacts to the navigation industry, he said.

Whitney said the Rock Island District has been closely coordinating the project design, scheduling and considerations with the U.S. Coast Guard and navigation industry, which will continue throughout the construction process.

Agreement Terms

The project partnership agreement calls for $274 million in federal funding, including $226 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and $48 million from the fiscal year 2023 president’s budget, along with $114 million in state funding to be used for the construction of the first of three increments of the project. Total estimated cost is $1.15 billion.

“The USACE Rock Island District has been working diligently with our partners in the states of Illinois and Michigan to move this critical project forward,” said Col. Aaron Williams, Rock Island District commander. “We are excited to be entering this next phase of the project and are committed to preventing the upstream movement of invasive carp and other aquatic nuisance species into the Great Lakes.”

The original proposed partnership agreement was delivered to the parties in December 2022 to initiate negotiations, with an estimate that it would be finalized as soon as August 2023 and no later than December 2023. When that execution milestone was missed, the project timeline was delayed, with a new milestone date eventually established for June 26, 2024. Sticking points previously mentioned by those involved in the negotiations included land acquisition and possible remediation—billed to the non-federal sponsor—if pollution was discovered on the necessary acreage.

The agreement calls for Illinois and Michigan to be equal partners in assuming remediation costs associated with land acquisition for the engineered channel and flushing lock, Whitney said.

Additionally, the acreage required on the right descending bank has decreased from an initial 12 acres down to seven, and then again to 3.6 acres. In the latest plans, control buildings have been moved to the left descending bank.

Whitney said in the 1960s bottom ash coal, sometimes called clinkers, may have been deposited on the site, but no testing has been able to take place. Clinkers, which look like chunks of glass that clink when hit together, are hard, fused coal materials left over from burning coal.

Funding Effects

Despite its allocation, federal funding for construction could not be accessed until the project partnership agreement was signed.

“This PPA signifies opening the financial lockbox that has been in place for nearly two years,” Whitney said.

The preconstruction and engineering design phase was initiated in January 2021 with a $28.85 million design cost-share agreement with a split of 65 percent federal and 35 percent non-federal. A total of $18.89 million has been spent on engineering design to date, $8.84 million federal and $10.05 non-federal.

With the passage of the January 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, along with the construction new start appropriation, the project needed the project partnership agreement signed to access additional federal funds. Engineering design was allowed to continue while project partnership negotiations took place from January 2023 until this past week, using $5.15 million in state funds through an accelerated funding agreement.

The signed project partnership agreement changes the funding formula to 90 percent by the federal government and 10 percent by Illinois and Michigan, as prescribed by the Water Resources and Development Act of 2022. Because it is an ecosystem restoration project, Brandon Road does not involve any funding from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

Those working on the project withdrew some of those state funds at six different intervals over the past year and a half and were within weeks of running out of funding.

“Thanks to the states, they kept us on course for this design work so that we were ready for the construction launch, which is now upon us,” Whitney said.

The additional design time allowed the Corps to merge two different parts of the project, called increments 1A and 1B, together into a single contract.

The Corps captured more savings by calling for rock removed from the engineered channel to be processed and used for the site development, thus eliminating the need to purchase and haul in rock.

“Efficient funding is going to be necessary to ensure schedule and costs on this project,” Whitney said.

In particular, he said funding for the flushing lock is likely to be needed in mid-to-late 2025 so that the gates can be fabricated. Lead time for gate construction is about two years, he said.

Of the federal funding now accessible because of the project partnership agreement, Whitney said the goal was to use about $300 million in the first 12 months.

Agreement Praised

“Protecting the Great Lakes has always been and will always be a priority for the state of Illinois, and after many years of this project eluding multiple administrations, I am thrilled to see it move forward,” Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said in a statement. “I want to thank our partners at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Michigan, as well as our team in the governor’s office and at [the depart of natural resources] for their years of work on this extraordinarily complex endeavor. Protecting the Great Lakes is not an undertaking that any one state or city can tackle alone, and I’m thrilled that we were able to forge a path that protects both the Great Lakes and ensures Illinois taxpayers do not shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also released a statement.

“Today’s agreement will help us get shovels in the ground as soon as possible on the critical Brandon Road project,” she said. “The Great Lakes are the beating heart of Michigan’s economy, and Brandon Road will help us protect local communities and key industries, including fishing and boating, that support tens of thousands of good-paying jobs. I am grateful to Gov. Pritzker of Illinois, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—especially the Rock Island District—and our congressional partners for their long-term support and partnership on this monumental task. Together, we will get the job done so we can protect our lakes and power economic growth for generations to come.”

With contracts for fabrication, continued design, leading edge deterrents and bedrock removal slated for solicitation in the coming weeks, interested contractors can visit www.mvr.usace.army.mil/BRIP or monitor the contract postings for the project on www.sam.gov.