Illinois lies at the heart of the nation’s transportation network. The state has one of the largest multimodal transportation networks in the country with thousands of miles of roads and rail, hundreds of airports, and numerous public transportation providers. Each of these modes plays an important role in the state’s robust transportation system. However, one of the most important elements of the system has often been overlooked, the waterway system. The Illinois Marine Transportation System (IMTS) links the State of Illinois with the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway and with the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. This gives Illinois farmers, manufacturers, and businesses access to international and interstate markets. The system is vital to the state’s economy transporting 90.6 million tons of goods, or 9% of Illinois’ freight tonnage in 2017. Barges flow up and down the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, and Kaskaskia rivers, as well as through the Chicago Area Waterway System and Lake Michigan providing an affordable, efficient, and clean means of transporting goods.
The IMTS is a vital part of Illinois’ transportation network and is also an important part of the nation’s waterway network. Illinois has a total of 87,110 miles of rivers and streams, of which 1,118 miles are commercially navigable waterways. The system transports 90.6 million tons of goods annually. The IMTS is made up of five commercially navigable waterways and Lake Michigan with 27 locks and dams throughout the system. While Illinois’ vast waterway network is used for commercial shipping of materials and goods, it also plays a pivotal role in transporting people. Services such as ferries, cruises, and water taxies provide residents and visitors a means of transportation along the IMTS for logistical and recreational purposes. These services are located throughout Illinois from Chicago to the Metro-East and Savanna to Peoria. They are critical to local and regional economies; they connect communities which would otherwise be isolated from each other and provide an influx of tourism dollars along the rivers and Lake Michigan. Ferries are an important part of Illinois’ transportation network. They allow individuals to access areas that
otherwise would not be accessible or would require a long route due to the lack of bridges in the area. All the ferries in the state are in Southern Illinois. Specifically, there are several ferries in and near Calhoun County, Illinois. Calhoun County sits in between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers which makes it a peninsula, isolated from Missouri and Illinois. There are no bridges connecting the County to Missouri and only one bridge (Hardin, Illinois) connecting it to the state east of the Illinois River. Due to this lack of accessibility, there are several ferries that provide service to the county and areas nearby.
The cruise industry is commonly associated with large ocean going vessels. However, there is an emerging market for Great Lakes and River cruises. Many companies offer several cruise packages ranging from 7 to 16 day trips with port of calls within Illinois. Cruises allow individuals to view the beauty Illinois has to offer from a perspective often not seen by many. The two main waterways that have cruise activity on them are Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. Additionally, throughout the IMTS there are many commercial watertaxies, passenger sightseeing and tour vessels. Unlike the cruises which can take multiple days, these services allow same day experiences and are located across the state and are specifically prevalent in the Chicago area. It is important to note that these services are a vital part of the local economies and encourage tourism.
IL Public Port districts are an important part of Illinois’ waterway system. They are a special-purpose unit of local government created by the Illinois General Assembly to support and facilitate use of the waterways for the transport of goods. As of 2023, there are a total of 20 public port districts in existence in the state. Their goal is to encourage the use of the waterways to transport goods, provide for economies of scale, effectively move goods, and provide economic development and job creation within their districts. While the main intent is to encourage the use of the waterways, a few districts promote airport activities and have little to do with waterways. The geographic size of each district can vary, from covering the limits of a single municipality to covering multiple counties. Each district is governed by a board of directors that consists of appointees by the governor and the local government(s) each district encompasses.
The impact of the IMTS on the Illinois economy is substantial. The analysis presented in this chapter shows that 166,628 workers are directly or indirectly affected by the marine services across the state. The system generates $36 billion in economic output in Illinois - representing 4 percent of gross state product - and each port district contributes to the total. The principal agricultural crops of Illinois depend on the IMTS for access to global markets,
and the favorable cost of transportation by water keeps Illinois’ crops competitive and farmers in business. In sectors like construction, chemicals or metals, goods that move on the IMTS either would bear a material economic penalty without the system, or they might not move at all.
Please click here to view a map of Illinois’ port system. https://idot.illinois.gov/Assets/uploads/files/Transportation-System/Maps-&-Charts/Illinois-Port-Districts.pdf
Please click here to view an Interactive IL Port District Map. https://idot.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/b43758c142474ff4b9283c7029ab805a
Please learn more here or contact IRPT Member:
BJ Murray, Section Chief, Aviation & Marine Transportation Program Planning
2300 S. Dirksen Parkway, Rm. 341
Springfield, Illinois 62764
Office Phone: (217) 782-4118
Brian McCoy, Marine Transportation Program Planning Specialist
2300 S. Dirksen Parkway, Rm. 311
Springfield, Illinois 62764
Office Phone: (217) 785-1024