Weighty Freight: Chicagoland's supremacy as a shipping hub is endangered by transport system

Oct 1, 2005

Every time a Chicagoand points and clicks on an Internet purchase to be shipped by United Parcel Service, another bit of weight is added to the region's overstrained freight system.

That's because, with the explosion in Asian-made consumer goods, there's a good chance the item has come through a West Coast port. From there, it's packed in a shipping container that's placed on a train, and, in the case of UPS, it eventually rides the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway right into west suburban Willow Springs. It rolls down the rails near the Tri-State Tollway and 75th Street, where Willow Springs becomes Hodgkins. Dozens more of the huge shipping containers chug into the UPS facility on rails, are unloaded for sorting, then re-packed according to destination and placed onto truck beds.

This rail-to-truck (and sometimes back to rail again) shipping, called intermodal freight, is one reason UPS' Hodgkins facility is the largest package sorting center in the world.

Multiplying that fictional consumer's package by 1.5 million gives a sense of what the facility handles in a single day. The 1.5-million-square-foot center on 240 acres employs 7,500 people, all of them getting UPS freight on its way. Fourteen trains and numerous trucks go in and out of the facility each day. 

And the intermodal freight center   used by UPS is just one of many. Food, clothing, televisions, computers, machine parts, appliances and much more are moving through the Chicago area at any given moment. All told, the region moves more than $920 billion worth of goods in a year, accounting for some 87,000 jobs worth $3.5 billion in compensation. The only place in America where six of the largest rail lines intersect, a place with 24,000 miles of roads and more than 2,800 miles of railroad tracks, the Chicago region is the undisputed king of U.S. freight, joining Hong Kong and Singapore as world leaders in the movement of goods.

But the region's supremacy is under attack. A legacy of uncoordinated planning, a slow, antiquated rail system and heavily clogged roads bursting with trucks all threaten the health and future of Chicago's freight system.

"Average people recognize the nuisance issues," says Jim LaBelle, deputy director of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a nonprofit organization concerned with the region's economic future. He points to such places as south suburban Blue Island, where freight trains clog the community on a daily basis. "Those folks recognize the nuisance of having the trains in the way. Motorists are aware of the increasing number of trucks on our roads."

But beyond recognizing the inconvenience, the depth of Chicago's freight system problems hasn't aroused the public's passion.

"It's not as sexy as a highway or other project," admits Paul Nowicki, assistant vice president government and public policy for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. "Freight and goods movement and supply chains are behind the scenes."

The civic-minded Chicago Metropolis 2020, founded in 1999 by The Commercial Club of Chicago, is sounding the alarm. In its report issued last year, The Metropolis Freight Plan: Delivering the Goods, the organization urged government and industry leaders to correct problems in the system before it devolves into freight gridlock and endless commuter traffic jams.

"We want to be able to drive, right?" asks LaBelle. "If we don't plan for this, our road system is going to be overrun by trucks, and we're not going to be able to handle it."

Historically, railways didn't want a lot of government help. Funded almost entirely with private money, freight railways have zealously guarded their right to control their own futures. Meanwhile, the federal government actively backed freight shipping on trucks by building the interstate highway system. At the same time, local governments didn't do much to make sure trucks had a connected system of approved local truck routes — much less worry about whether truck routes were located near railroads.

The advent of "just-in-time delivery," as opposed to warehousing large inventories of goods, along with the explosion of imports from China and elsewhere, has given the U.S. shipping industry a huge increase in business. The amount of freight brought through the Chicago region on railroads is expected to increase by at least 70 percent by 2030.  Meanwhile, the number of trucks rumbling across Chicago-area roads is poised to increase by at least 80 percent during the same period, the report warns. Because trucks are larger than cars, they account for two-thirds of the projected increase in traffic on area roads.

"We're not prepared to handle that kind of volume," LaBelle says.

The breakneck speed of growth is making the old ways of doing things unworkable.

"Obviously, not only do we have severe congestion today in both our highways and our freight rail traffic, but if we don't prepare for growth in the future, it's going to severely choke our economy," says Joseph Szabo, state legislative director for the United Transportation Union, which represents about 125,000 active and retired railroad, bus and mass transit workers in the United States and Canada. "Every time I'm stuck in traffic on the interstate, I curse our transportation planners."

So what can be done?

The Metropolis 2020 plan contains several recommendations, including one that's already been acted upon. This summer, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation merging the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission and the Chicago Area Transportation Study into one organization called the Regional Planning Board. The merger will put planning for land use, roads, public transportation and freight movement into one organization governed by 15 members drawn from Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties.

The plan also recommends increased use of intermodal truck-and-train centers, like the one used by UPS in Hodgkins. Other examples of healthy intermodal centers include the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Logistics Park at the old Joliet Arsenal and the Union Pacific Global III intermodal site in Rochelle, where trains bringing goods to the 1,200-acre facility in Ogle County can switch containers to trucks bound for Interstate 88 or Interstate 39 or another train.

But as Mike Payette, assistant vice president for governmental affairs for Union Pacific can attest, finding large enough parcels of land near an interstate highway and railways, where residents won't complain of noise and traffic, can be a tall order. Union Pacific was hit with resident opposition near the DuPage Airport and in Maple Park in western Kane County before finally being welcomed by Rochelle, which was looking to attract more industry. The Metropolis 2020 report identifies five large sites around the Chicago region that it says should be preserved for future intermodal freight centers, including land near Peotone where backers want a new airport.

Any comprehensive freight strategy also must include rail infrastructure improvements, LaBelle and Nowicki say. The state's Chicago Regional 

Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) rail infrastructure improvement plan, a $1.5 billion program intended to span 10 years, includes plans for railroad "flyovers" — bridges where one set of tracks crosses another — plus signal modernization and other improvements.

The recent federal transportation bill includes $100 million toward CREATE's projects over four years, something advocates call an OK beginning but far short of the total amount they say is needed. (CREATE's backers had hoped for $900 million in federal money over a decade.) Also, the cash-strapped state government will have to contribute $25 million to get the federal money, and it has proposed, but not committed, $300 million over the life of the program. The freight railroads have pledged to kick in $212 million of their own money over 10 years.

As for the trucks, the Metropolis 2020 report has several ideas to smooth out their use of the roads. For one, the creation of county planning organizations would be a first step in ironing out problems with unconnected local truck routes. The way things stand now, the state, counties and 272 municipalities have their own say in designating or banning the use of roads for truck routes for 80,000-pound semi-trailers. No one is required to coordinate those routes.

"Local officials say, 'We don't want these trucks on our roads,'" says Don Schaefer, vice president of the Mid-West Truckers Association. "The problem is, we've got so many jurisdictions that have their hands involved."

Another recommendation to ease truck traffic congestion is using barrier-free tollway technology to institute variable toll pricing, which could be used to get trucks off the roads during peak traffic times. If truckers could pay less by traveling in the evening, for instance, it could dramatically cut commuters' travel times on area roads.

The recommendations are many and the work is daunting. But freight industry officials say something must be done. 

"I think it's a slow process of education, and it's our job to educate policymakers," Payette says. "I think a good start has been made."

If the area does nothing, Chicago's freight business may be shipped somewhere else — somewhere with fewer bottlenecks and less political baggage.

"The leader of a major railroad told me the only reason why Chicago won't continue to be the leader is if we fail to invest in our transportation infrastructure," LaBelle says. "It's really a national challenge for us to make sure this hub functions well." 


Stephanie Zimmermann is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.


Illinois Issues, October 2005