Area counties are seeking to form a sprawling port that could transform commerce on the Mississippi River and position the Quad-Cities as one of the largest ports in the nation.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Bob Sinkler, who spent 30 years working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is leading the effort as a volunteer.
The idea is simple: The boards of 15 counties along the Mississippi River from Keokuk to Dubuque pass resolutions to join a statistical port area, and an application is submitted for federal approval. If all 15 counties opt in, the 222-mile-long port would be the 68th largest in the United States, including coastal ports.
The potential rewards are many: Sinkler and other port advocates say the designation would open up millions in federal funding, even for private companies; lead to more private investments by companies looking to ship goods on the river; and protect vital funding for the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At the very least, designation of a Top 100 port would help in competing for federal funds for infrastructure projects, Sinkler said, and it would boost the area's profile as a shipping magnate.
Under current federal designations, there are just two nearby ports along the Mississippi River, one in St. Louis and the other in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Sinkler's efforts would designate a third port, with many "terminals," or areas where goods are loaded and unloaded, along the entire Iowa border with the Mississippi. A similar long port stretches along the Ohio River between Ohio and Kentucky.
“We are losing out,” Sinkler said. This area is “less competitive” on funding requests “because they’re not tied to a federally recognized port.” That also puts Corps funding in jeopardy, because funds designated for the Rock Island District are often diverted to other districts aligned with major ports.
The statistical designation would "make sure federal investment is happening in this area,” said Denise Bulat, executive director of Bi-State Regional Commission, a regional transportation-planning group helping in the federal application process.
The concept does not specifically call for any new construction on the river, nor does it give Bi-State or any other groups the authority to levy taxes or otherwise regulate commerce within the port. It merely designates on paper a federally recognized port where shippers are already doing business.
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“There’s no downside. It’s just recognizing reality,” Sinkler said.
The 15 counties, in both Iowa and Illinois, include 70 river terminals, 50 of which are in the Hawkeye State. Both states are significant exporters of soybeans and corn.
Paul Rumler, president and CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber, said people might not realize the amount of river traffic that passes through this area because it's spread out over dozens of terminals instead of one single port.
“The activity that is happening there rivals some of those larger ports in other parts of the country and the world. That’s really what we’re trying to describe with this port statistical designation,” he said.
Sinkler and Bulat said they hope to apply for the port designation by the end of January with the expectation of being federally recognized by September.
The boards of 10 regional counties already have passed resolutions to opt in. An unnamed county could pass one soon, and conversations continue with Henderson and Hancock counties in Illinois and Lee and Des Moines counties in Iowa, Sinkler said.
If those four do not choose to opt in before the application is submitted, they could potentially be added later. But not including Lee and Des Moines counties would drop the potential port from a ranking of 68th to 83rd nationally.
“We are hopeful these counties will come in," Bulat said. "... I think we’ll know by the end of this month if they’re in or out."
If the port area is federally recognized, that would mean area leaders could “better quantify what exists here and then tell that story. So for a marketing perspective, we’ll be able to talk about all the commerce, all the commodities, and all the flow of goods and products that flow up and down our river, from our interstates into ports and onto barges,” Rumler said.
“As a result of having all that data, we’ll then be able to apply for grants and federal state funds that are available to help support lock and dam improvement or riverway improvements as a result of having that type of port movement … that’s a huge deal when it comes to just differentiating yourself for an economic development project or to tell the story of the role we play in our global economy.”