More than a dozen people work at Rock Island’s port terminal off Illinois Route 92, but many people don’t know it’s there.
The terminal would be easy to miss if not for a few piles of crude iron peeking over a fence and the large, gray warehouse sitting in the middle of the property.
The entrance has a white sign attached to the fence that reads, “Alter Logistics” in bright, bold yellow lettering. A gravel road leads to the front office.
Owned by the city and leased to Alter Logistics, the Rock Island Intermodal Port Terminal sits along the Mississippi River in the industrial park at 700 Mill St. The terminal helps transport commodities from barge to rail to truck, using inland waterways and other forms of transportation.
The city is seeking a port designation, which would create considerable opportunities for the barge terminal and for other means of transportation in Rock Island, impacting the entire region.
What happens here
Terminal Manager Doug Weber oversees the day-to-day operations and has been with the company for eight years. The terminal frequently is busy, except for a period around the first of each year when the river’s navigation channel closes and barges stop moving on the Upper Mississippi.
“There’s a lot of different commodities that are thrown onto barges that you wouldn’t think of,” Weber said. “But it’s the best form of transportation.”
Located right off a state highway, Weber said, the terminal is convenient for transporting goods from the barge onto trucks, which deliver throughout the two-state area and beyond.
Products still are shipped over the winter season, using other means of transportation.
Things start to pick up again the first week of March and remain steady throughout the summer until fall when, Weber said, another peak occurs.
“Our spring and fall are usually our busier seasons that our customers like to bring in product,” he said.
A dozen commodities are shipped at the terminal, with fertilizer and road salt being the biggest two. About 80,000 to 100,000 tons of road salt was handled this winter.
Salt that was brought into Rock Island’s port was used around the Quad-Cities and was transported as far as Bloomington-Normal and Des Moines.
Other commodities include grain, scrap, lumber, steel and aluminum, magnesium alloy, urea and other dry bulk.
The windows on one side of the office face the Mississippi River, providing a view of the transport yard. There, commodities are unloaded into the hopper, or funnel-type equipment, which moves it to the warehouse. The goods then are dropped into bins, or storage-like rooms.
It’s a short walk to the dock — across dirt and gravel that often clings to workers’ steel-toed boots. The closer one gets to the barge, the more the wind picks up, along with the sound of heavy equipment in use.
Typically, two barge containers can be emptied in a day, Weber said.
“It takes about four to six hours to empty a container, but it also depends on the product,” he said.
Aluminum takes at least a few days to unload.
Parts of the process
Behind the barge terminal sits the 40,000-ton fertilizer warehouse. Products are weighed and transported onto trucks and rail at the warehouse, along with bins.
Rail cars and trucks can be unloaded on the side of the terminal that is closest to the river. On the other side of the warehouse, closest to the office, trucks also can be loaded and unloaded.
It takes five to seven minutes to fill a truck — 40 to 45 minutes to fill a rail car.
But how will they know how much product is being transported?
There are a few different ways, but figuring out how much tonnage to transport begins with a scale.
Written on the side of the rail cars, Weber said, is the number of tons it can hold. Mounted on the wall is a digital scale reader that shows how much product is being weighed and loaded.
Also located in the warehouse are bins, or storage-like rooms, where commodities are stored before they are transported.
The property also has a 3,000-square-foot dome for more product storage that isn’t considered dry bulk. Inside the dome, products such as crude iron or magnesium alloy can be found.
The convenience of the state highway that connects to the interstates, along with the railway, Weber said, make it easier for transportation and attracts companies to use Rock Island’s terminal.
Since it opened in the 1980s, a number of improvements have been made. Tom Streight, sales and marking vice-president for Alter, has been with the company for 30 years and said updates include a recently renovated $4 million seawall for barge access and the 40,000-ton fertilizer warehouse.
But as more updates are needed, funding for projects can be difficult.
The power of a port
The city is vying for a port district designation through the state that would encompass the entire city. If approved, it would provide Rock Island’s port with more funding opportunities for projects.
Illinois State Sen. Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island, filed legislation that would create the Rock Island Regional Port District Act, or Senate Bill 1897. The designation provides another way for the city to receive more infrastructure funding, all while encouraging the use of waterways and other means of transportation to efficiently move goods.
A port district designation for Rock Island, Streight said, would allow for more infrastructure improvements at and around the terminal. On the list are terminal upgrades, expansion of rail transportation and roadway improvements.
“Some of these federal grants are available only to governmental agencies like a port authority,” he said.
Streight said that Alter also had a terminal lease in Minnesota and that the port district designation at the St. Paul terminal allowed them to make a number of important improvements.
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April 16, 2023 at 08:56AM