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Corps of Engineers port initiative brings huge opportunity to the Corn Belt

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Underutilized, undercapitalized inland ports and terminals may see significant economic opportunities due to part of the new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “Revolutionize Civil Works” (RCW) initiative. I recently worked with the Corps as it applied this initiative along the Upper Mississippi River.

To understand the RCW’s potential benefits for undercapitalized ports, consider how Corps of Engineers policy on port designations has existed for decades and how it is changing today. Historically, inland ports were thought of as being at a single geographic point or location, usually identified with a town or city, or perhaps a natural harbor, side channel, or a river section with a natural bank or shoreline suited for port needs.

For more background, click here for my July 2020 blog on the subject.

For decades, many communities and local governments along these waterways were limited by this thinking. In the heart of the Corn Belt above Locks and Dam 26 on the Upper Mississippi River, the area’s river terminals have for decades been severely underutilized. In 2019 there were still no Principal U.S. Ports on the Illinois Waterway between St. Louis and Chicago and on the Upper Mississippi River between St. Louis and St. Paul. It was virtually a port “shadow zone.”

The USACE Waterborne Commerce Center (WCSC) recognized that this outdated model was no longer valid because of how our nation’s road and rail infrastructure increasingly intersected with narrow inland rivers and waterways. This problem was also compounded over the years by major industrial and agricultural terminals locating or re-locating far from the urban areas on the narrow waterways in the Midwest. These functioning ports had evolved into extended linear infrastructure features, sometimes reaching up to 200 miles long.

The WCSC responded by agreeing to applications submitted by the Corn Belt Ports in 2020 to combine and consolidate dozens of smaller city and county ports and terminals on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. This action resulted in creation of three “Top 100 Ports,” each about 200 miles long:

  1. The Illinois Waterway Ports and Terminals;

  2. The Mid-America Port Commission at the confluence of the Illinois and Upper Mississippi Rivers; and,

  3. The Mississippi River Ports of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.

For inland ports and the surrounding communities, the importance of the Corps of Engineers policy change on port designations is regionally significant:

“This national recognition reinforces the value of the Corn Belt to waterborne commerce and the global economy.”

Jim Tarmann

Managing Director, Illinois Corn Growers Association.

“Establishing Iowa’s first U.S. Port is a historical event for the nation’s top producer and exporter of corn, and the Corn Belt Ports will help open the doors for investment in multi-modal transportation infrastructure along over 600 miles of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.”

Bob Gallagher

Mayor, Bettendorf, Iowa

Co-Chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative

“Expansion of the Illinois Waterway Ports and Terminals Port Statistical Area to include our riverfront counties will more accurately represent the value of our region’s multi-modal transportation infrastructure to the state, national, and global economies and make North Central Illinois more attractive and competitive for new investment.”

Kevin Lindeman

Executive Director, North Central Illinois Council of Governments.

For more information click here for the latest issue of Capitol Currents Newsletter (Page 11).

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.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.


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