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Cairo port project gets additional funding, but construction timeline still uncertain

Barges are pictured on the Ohio River near Cairo.

SPRINGFIELD – Both the state and federal governments are pumping additional money into plans to develop a riverport in southern Illinois at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

President Joe Biden’s administration announced Wednesday that the Alexander-Cairo Port District will receive a $150,000 grant to develop a master plan to identify the scope for port development and the future of the riverport.

And the Illinois Department of Transportation recently authorized an additional $790,000 for planning and development.

The new federal money will come from the Delta Regional Authority, an agency established in 2000 to promote and encourage economic development of the lower Mississippi River and Alabama Black Belt regions. The funding is part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that President Biden signed in 2021.

The state money is part of a $40 million investment that was originally appropriated in the 2019 Rebuild Illinois capital improvements program.

That would cover only a fraction of the overall cost of development, which the Illinois Answers Project reported in March could be as high as $250 to $300 million. But officials have said they hope to receive private investment to cover most of the costs once they secure the necessary state and federal permits.

Officials had originally hoped to start construction on the project in 2022 and to have it operational in 2024. But the project stalled amid disagreements between IDOT and port district officials over how the state funds appropriated so far have been spent.

According to Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s office, the state has spent just over $3 million on the project since fiscal year 2019.

IDOT announced in October last year that it was releasing another $3.4 million for the project, but  Mendoza’s office said this week that none of that money has gone out.

At that time, the port district had requested nearly $7.5 million in reimbursements. But IDOT Secretary Omer Osman wrote in a letter to the district’s board chairman at the time, Larry Klein, that IDOT could not approve just over $4 million in requested money, either because the costs identified were not eligible for reimbursement with bond funds or the district had not provided sufficient information to process the request.

Osman also said in that letter that the administration had become deeply concerned that more than half of the funds spent by the state up to that point had been used for “consulting, project and grant management, and development expertise services.”

“In the future, state funds should be used for the engineering, site readiness, and environmental work necessary to complete the development of the port terminal,” he wrote. “Minimal funds may be used for consultation services.”

In February, the industry publication Waterways Journal reported that the project had stalled after a number of contracts had expired and no funding had been received since June 2022.

Now, however, the board has a new chairman, Alexander County State’s Attorney Zach Gowin, who took over as chairman in March. Klein remains on the board as vice chairman.

Gowin said in an interview Wednesday that the reason none of the $3.4 million announced in October had been spent yet was because the board had not yet submitted any vouchers for reimbursement. But he said the board hopes to begin the first of what could be several environmental studies by the end of the year. He declined to estimate when construction might begin.

“I don’t like putting a lot of timelines out there for people because I like to under-promise and over-deliver myself,” he said.

He said the environmental studies are needed to support applications for the numerous federal permits the project will need before construction begins.

“We’re happy that we’re making forward progress right now,” Gowin said. “I think all of us, including the board, would like to have a fast-forward button. But we’re building a port from the ground up, which is a great benefit, a great blessing to us because we can build it in a way that is responsive to the needs of the market and we don’t have to retrofit anything.”

Gov. JB Pritzker said Friday that he understands the project will take longer than he’d hoped it would.

“The Cairo port project is something that requires a lot of federal approvals,” he said at an unrelated appearance in Carterville. “It requires the local organization to make sure that they have all their plans in place. And we’ve got to make sure that the businesses are lined up and understand what the timing will be. But to match all that up takes a few years, and that’s the process that we’re in now.”

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Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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