Port Authority application approved

Backers of a proposed Missouri River port in or near Jefferson City are working to advance the project.

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission approved an application to create the Heartland Port Authority of Central Missouri at its Wednesday meeting in Chesterfield.

Proponents of the port praised the move by the commission and said they hope a Missouri River port will open doors for the region's economy. Still, proponents involved in the project said work on the port is just getting started.

Jefferson City, the Cole County Commission, the Callaway County Commission and the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce applied in July to the Missouri Department of Transportation to form the Heartland Port Authority. The groups began working on the application 21/2 years ago. Randy Allen, Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce president, said the project would've been killed if the commission denied the application.

"If we didn't get this, the project was pretty much dead," Allen said. "This project is a marathon, and we'll keep working until we find something that's feasible."

Before a port can be built, the Heartland Port Authority needs to conduct preliminary work at both sites being considered for a Missouri River port near Jefferson City. In February, the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned a feasibility study by Atlanta consultancy firm Cambridge Systematics to look at what would need to be done to build a river port in Jefferson City.

Several things including detailed environmental studies and studies of how roads could be built around a port still need to be done, Allen said.

"The feasibility study did a very light look at the characteristics of those sites," he said.

This summer, the Heartland Port Authority applied for $937,500 in BUILD grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay for this preliminary work. BUILD grants allocate a maximum of $25 million for road, bridge or other infrastructure projects.

In the application for the BUILD grant, Allen said, the Heartland Port Authority informed the Transportation Department that they hoped MoDOT would approve its port authority status. With the application approved, they plan to follow up with the Transportation department.

Approval of the status as a port authority by MoDOT will help the Heartland Port Authority's case for the grant, Allen said. In December, the Heartland Port Authority hopes to find out whether it will receive the grant.

Callaway County Western District Commissioner Roger Fischer also said MoDOT's approval will help the new port authority with grant applications.

Already Callaway County, Cole County and Jefferson City contributed $47,600 each to pay for the feasibility study and economic impact reports commissioned by the chamber. If the Heartland Port Authority receives the BUILD grant, Jefferson City and Cole County would contribute an additional $75,000 and Callaway County would contribute $37,500, according to documents outlining the port authority approval process.

In July, the Cole County Commission and the Jefferson City Council approved spending up to $150,000 on the next phase of the project if the BUILD grant application fails. The Callaway County Commission declined to approve spending $75,000 if the grant application fails.

Even though MoDOT approved the Heartland Port Authority application, Allen stressed the project is still in its early stages.

The Heartland Port Authority will also soon create a board of commissioners to govern the port authority, he said. Cole County, Callaway County and Jefferson City will each appoint three members to serve three-year terms on the port authority's board of commissioners, according to documents outlining the Heartland Port Authority approval process.

Heartland Port officials identified two possible sites for the port.

One option would build a port in southern Jefferson City adjacent to the Missouri National Guard Ike Skelton Training Facility near the chamber's existing industrial park. A second option would build a port near OCCI Inc. in northern Jefferson City in Callaway County in addition to the southern Jefferson City port.

Under the two-site plan, dry bulk commodities would be handled at the south site using conveyor systems. Commodities moved by crane, such as those in shipping containers, would be handled at the northern site.

Building only the south site would cost at least $54.77 million, according to a February feasibility study conducted by Atlanta Consultancy firm Cambridge Systematics. The two-site plan would cost $59.5 million.

An additional $10 million would be needed for roadway improvements. Engineering and planning services would cost $1 million more.

Construction of south site facilities is expected to take about two years under both plans. In the dual-site plan, operations at the north site could begin about a year after construction starts.

At this time, Allen and Fischer said both plans are still being considered, and there is no immediate timetable to determine which plan will move forward.