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Southern Illinois inland port project seeks to become logistics hub player

‘I think everyone should view this port not just as a single river port but as a potential hub’

A public-private group is seeking the creation of an inland port near where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet in southern Illinois. (Photo: Flickr/Mobilus In Mobili)

An inland port in southern Illinois could someday become a logistics hub supporting key Midwestern markets, say officials affiliated with the Alexandria Cairo Port District, who are pushing to develop the port.

Located where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River, the inland port at Cairo (pronounced KAY-ro) would support downriver traffic as well as existing hubs such as Memphis, Tennessee, about 170 miles south.

“There is enough capacity, enough land [and waterfront] development … where Cairo could answer the call as a logistics hub” serving container, bulk or neo-bulk volumes, said John Vickerman, a port design consultant whose clients have included the Port of Virginia and the Port of Providence in Rhode Island.

“I think everyone should view this port not just as a single river port but as a potential hub,” Vickerman said. “The ability to interface with Memphis and New Orleans is high. The ability of Cairo to be a depot for containers is high.”

The location is favorable for numerous factors, according to Todd Ely, an economic development consultant for the project. Eighty percent of all inland barge traffic passes through the region, over 60% of the U.S. population is within an eight-hour drive, and there are no locks and dams or ice between Cairo and the Gulf of Mexico, Ely said.

The port would also have access to Class I railroad CN (NYSE: CNI), Interstates 24, 55 and 57, and a nearby regional airport.

Why the time is right

The idea of developing an inland port at Cairo — a largely abandoned city with a dubious past, according to travel websites — started coming into its own in 2010 with the creation of the Alexandria Cairo Port District, a public-private partnership that includes the city and the Cairo Public Utility Co. A feasibility study was conducted in 2013, and a strategic plan and conceptual design were produced in 2020.

The port is currently seeking state and federal permits. Once those are secured, port officials hope for groundbreaking to occur in the four quarter of 2022, with the port beginning operations in the fourth quarter of 2024.

Building the port at Cairo now will enable the region to take advantage of dredging efforts to deepen the Mississippi River Ship Channel by 50 feet. Doing so will allow larger vessels to sail into the U.S. Gulf Coast near New Orleans, roughly 560 miles south.

Furthermore, Cairo is in an area of the Midwest that shippers are actively seeking access to from the East Coast, Gulf Coast and West Coast ports, as well as from ports in eastern and western Canada.

To bolster the port’s ability to handle imports and exports, officials plan to apply next year for the port to be within the foreign trade zone and have U.S. customs port of entry designation, which would enable containers to enter and exit customs more efficiently.

At Cairo, officials expect the port to handle vessels with a capacity ranging from 14,000 to 15,000 twenty-foot equivalent units. 

Once the port is fully built out, anticipated container throughput capacity would be around 315,000 TEUs, while initial bulk throughput capacity would be around 8.3 million short tons and intermodal rail throughput capacity would be around 328,000 TEUs.

The port has the potential to handle container or barge services, as well as refrigerated containers for import and export, Vickerman said. Non-GMO, export-bound soybeans, corn and grain, agricultural fertilizer, coiled steel, scrap metal, and biofuels are other commodities that could pass through the port, he said.

The lower Mississippi carries 50%-60% of total U.S. corn exports and 30%-45% of total U.S. soybean exports, Vickerman said.

“Exporting agricultural products is a significant opportunity for us,” Vickerman said.

Port officials put the price at around $300 million. The port has already secured $41 million in state funding, and the area is eligible for prospective businesses to take advantage of federal and state tax incentives.

Officials are also courting businesses that support green initiatives: The port will be using electric equipment, including four electric ship-to-shore cranes, once the port is fully built out. And the port will seek opportunities to allow full or partial automation.

Prospective customers “are all insisting that this port be as green as it can possibly be, and this is one of our goals and objectives … . We are building and designing for that, and we believe that will help us attract customers to the port,” Ely said.

As the port develops, other port-supporting businesses could spring up in tandem, such as truck stops, fueling stations for barges and railcar cleaning services, officials said.

The port will be the nucleus that brings about the revitalization of southern Illinois, Ely said.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.