Does the Port of Chicago have a future? A next-door neighbor makes clear it does

Indiana’s Burns Harbor has a lot to teach Chicago and Illinois about what a well-funded and modern port could mean for our city and state.

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The Port of Chicago

The Port of Chicago

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times file photo

The Port of Chicago, an international facility virtually secreted away on the Far South Side, brought in 17 million tons of cargo last year.

That’s small potatoes compared to the action at the 54-mile-long Port of South Louisiana, which pulled in 275 million tons of goods last year from Mississippi’s warm waters. But the Chicago port does almost twice the business of neighboring Indiana’s Burns Harbor, which brought in 8.6 million tons of cargo last year.

That’s actually a pretty good haul for the Indiana harbor, which is considerably smaller in physical size than the Port of Chicago. So Burns Harbor has a lot to teach about what a well-funded and modern port could mean for Chicago.

A 2015 study commissioned by the Ports of Indiana found that Burns Harbor had a $4.8 billion impact on the state’s economy, including the generation of $236 million in state and federal taxes.

On the other side of the state line, the Port of Chicago had an impact of only $830 million on the Illinois economy and, in 2017, brought in only $202 million in taxes.

A lesson from the Hoosier State

The smaller Burns Harbor isn’t punching above its weight; Chicago, with its aged facilities, is fighting below its weight.

The already well-funded and up-to-date Burns Harbor plans to spend an additional $20 million over the next four years to expand rail facilities, build a two-acre intermodal cargo terminal, and make other improvements.

The Port of Chicago, by comparison, soon will receive only a portion of the $35 million the Legislature earmarked this year for port improvements, with the balance going to 18 other ports. The Chicago port also will receive a modest $3.48 million in Lake Calumet District TIF funds.

Because investment in the Port of Chicago has lagged far behind that of Burns Harbor, which has made substantial modernization impossible, “a significant amount” of business “has been lost to Indiana,” Stephen Schlickman of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center told us. An improved Chicago port stands a chance of winning back some of that traffic while snaring a share of freight and cargo that currently travels over the road in trucks.

Schlickman and Urban Transportation Center Director P.S. Sriraj are completing a study of the state’s port system for the Illinois Department of Transportation. It’s the first comprehensive look at the state’s ports, and will include a database and performance measures. The study, expected to be completed in 2020, could help to positively shape the future of the Chicago port.

This year’s infusion of state funding and TIF money was a welcomed “shot in the arm” for the port, Sriraj said, “but it’s a one-shot approach.” For the port to realize its full potential, he said, the city and state must provide sustained and consistent funding.

A $9 billion pot?

But where to get the money? There may be state and local sources of revenue that can be tapped, but the most promising source of potential funding is the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The fund controls more than $9 billion set aside for the nation’s ports and harbors, yet the money sits largely unspent. The federal government collects taxes from foreign and domestic cargo but sits on the bounty.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the state’s congressional delegation would do well to add their support to an effort in the U.S. House to free up the cash — making sure to claim Chicago’s fair share of it.

An additional way to better fund the Port of Chicago would be to redevelop lesser used portions of the port district’s 1,800 acres. A corner of the land, most specifically, has been proposed as a good site for a Chicago casino. We don’t know if a Southeast Side site would allow Chicago to make the most of a casino’s potential, but the notion of using port district land — much of it now sitting empty — for other public purposes makes perfectly good sense.

Port could lead Far South Side’s rebirth

Better still would be the creation of a master plan for the Port of Chicago and its surrounding Chicago neighborhoods. Such a plan could direct new, complementary business and industry to the port region, work out land-use issues, and promote better ways — including better mass transit — to connect the Southeast Side to Chicago’s downtown and surrounding communities.

The need for a comprehensive plan becomes all the more pressing as industry slowly returns to the Chicago port region. Construction of a 400,000-square-foot industrial building recently was completed near 111th Street in the Pullman neighborhood, and a massive Chinese-owned factory to build CTA L cars was built earlier this year at 135th Street and Torrence Avenue in Hegewisch.

For far too long, the Port of Chicago has been treated like a backwater embarrassment, a stumbling side player on the city’s economic stage. If well supported, it can do better.

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