Rethinking Inland Waterway Ports

Colonel (Ret) Robert Sinkler

U.S. policy has traditionally treated a “port” as a single geographic point or location, usually identified with a town or city.  Occasionally, a port could also refer to a natural harbor or side channel, or even a wide section of a river with a natural bank or shoreline that was well-suited for loading and unloading steamboats.

Many communities and local governments along inland waterways are still limited by this thinking.  When I commanded the Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, I worked with several riverfront communities that had no appreciation for the quantity and value of goods shipped from nearby barge terminals just outside city limits.  Residents were aware of the extensive barge traffic but they did not know whether the cargo originated from their or another state.  In several cases, roads servicing these barge terminals were not appropriately planned and maintained. In short, the larger regional port identity just did not exist. 

But in recent years, this traditional way of viewing ports has begun a rapid change.  First, our roads and rail lines increasingly intersect with narrow inland rivers and waterways.  Second, large industrial and agricultural terminals, particularly in the U.S. Midwest, are increasingly being built along narrow waterways outside of nearby communities. As a result, functioning ports have evolved into extended infrastructure operations, sometimes reaching over 200 miles long like the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern KY.

Federally recognized Regional Planning Authorities are carefully designing road, rail and barge terminal infrastructure and facilities to maximize the value of this integrated transportation network over large areas.  This increasingly means overcoming significant institutional challenges, including governance, the role of private industry, financing the transportation system, and infrastructure development to realize regional capacity improvement.

Among the states leading this effort are Illinois and Iowa and what these two states have done recently to improve their inland waterways system is instructive. The latest Illinois Marine Transportation System Study highlighted major inefficiencies in Illinois and Iowa port operations.  Nearly one third of Illinois’ barge terminals were identified to be outside of a designated port area.  This prevents optimizing many aspects of the integrated multi-modal transportation network.

This has led Illinois and Iowa to partner to create a 220-mile “port,” officially called the Mississippi River Ports of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois. If approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Navigation and Civil Works Decision Support, and Waterborne Commerce Statistics Centers, this would become the U.S.’s 20th largest inland port based on tonnage.  The states are also discussing creation of a 200-mile Illinois Waterway Ports and Terminals region which would be even more economically significant due to value of goods shipped.

For an October 14 Des Moines Register summary, click here. For details on the Mississippi River Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois partnership, click here for a helpful article in the National Waterways Conference newsletter (pages 8-10).

The recent federally recognized 225-mile Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky has become the busiest inland port district in the nation and is a successful example of this modern regional approach.  Similarly, the  199-mile Port of Huntington is the largest river port in the state of West Virginia and was the 15th-largest in the United States as of 2012.  Numerous government entities in these areas are volunteering to come together to cooperatively form and govern port areas and multi-modal transportation regions that are nationally and globally significant.

These examples are the necessary beginning of an important transformation of U.S. policy toward inland ports and multi-modal transportation networks.

Col. (ret) Bob Sinkler
Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson & Associates team since 2013, Bob Sinkler commanded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District from 2006 to 2009.

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