Critical Cargo: An article from the Fall 2001 issue of Regional Connection - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

Critical Cargo: An article from the Fall 2001 issue of Regional Connection

MPC and Business Leaders for Transportation aim to unclog our other bottleneck.

: Heard about the Chicago region's transportation capacity squeeze? You know, the one with big international, national and local implications?

No, not THAT squeeze. Everybody knows about the flap over aviation capacity over whether to expand O'Hare International Airport, build a third airport at Peotone or pursue some combination of the two.

Fact is, there is a second ominous bottleneck here, in a region known far and wide as America's premier transportation hub. And in some respects, this other crisis-in-the-making is as menacing to our economic future as jet plane delays at O'Hare.

Surface freight transportation, the daily business of moving cargo by road and rail, has been slowing to a crawl across the Chicago region. The average freight train speed is down to 2.7 m.p.h. As for truck traffic, maybe you've noticed the barely moving wagon train of semi-trailers that forms every weekday across the South Side and south suburbs along the Interstate 80/94/294 corridor. Or those interminably long freight trains that block roadway grade crossings as they groan ever-so-slowly into, or out of, one of our region's cramped switching yards.

A vital industry at risk

To be sure, chronic truck and train backups are a traffic nuisance and quality-of-life issue for millions in the region. But delays are also a direct economic threat to the region's $8 billion surface transportation industry, a hugely important sector that has 115,000 employees and a $3.2 billion annual payroll. Indeed, there's a threat to the entire local and national economy, insofar as the historic factor behind our region's success has been its ability to move goods of all kinds to and from far-flung markets.

No wonder, then, that Business Leaders for Transportation, a coalition representing more than 10,000 area employers, set out to identify the causes of surface freight delays and what can be done to eliminate them.

Under the joint leadership of MPC, Chicago Metropolis 2020 and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Business Leaders for Transportation kicked off the effort last year with a regional conference titled "Improving Metropolitan Chicago's Freight Transportation Network." That led to the formation of a Freight Transportation Working Group composed of key shipping industry executives, government transportation officials and experts from the research and nonprofit sectors. The Working Group met four times this year, with each session further refining key problems and potential solutions.

This fall, those findings and recommendations are being published in a briefing document aimed at the press, government decision-makers and freight industry leaders. Business Leaders expects to find an eager audience among elected officials, since many have constituents who are impacted by road and rail delays. In fact, the Working Group received valuable input from the offices of Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), U.S. Rep. William Lipinski (D-Chicago), Gov. George Ryan and Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Political firepower is key because competition for federal transportation funds is fierce. Delegation leaders like House Speaker Dennis Hastert, however, can help make a strong case for the national significance of improving the movement of goods here.

The intermodal dilemma

A major reason behind freight delays here, both road and rail, has been the rapid increase of containerized, intermodal shipping. The movement of huge containers from ocean-going ships, to trucks, to railcars for cross-country passage, and back again to trucks for ultimate delivery, offers logistical and cost advantages for shippers, especially compared to hand-loading railroad box cars.

Trouble is, the Chicago region's century-old system of switching yards has been hard-pressed to make the conversion from "manifest" shipping to intermodal. Some modern intermodal facilities have been completed, such as the new CSX yard at 59th Street east of Western Avenue on Chicago's South Side. Others are being planned or are under construction, such as CenterPoint Properties' redevelopment of a portion of the old Joliet Arsenal grounds for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company. However, finding sufficient developable space at key locations along the region's railroad network has been a problem, witness Union Pacific's protracted search for a site along that railroad's western approaches to Chicagoland. Problematic, too, is the lack of steel-wheel connections among railroads that have been historic competitors.

This lack of rail-to-rail connections is one reason there are so many trucks clogging the region's interstates and truck routes. Some 3,500 truck trips are required daily just to move freight containers from yard to yard. When "deadhead" return runs and local pickups and deliveries are included, the daily total of intermodal truck trips climbs to 17,810.

With intermodal volumes here expected to grow by 2.5 times by 2020, Business Leaders is looking for ways to minimize intermodal's downsides these street-choking yard-to-yard truck trips while maximizing its economic potential. Already the region ranks third internationally as an intermodal transfer point, surpassed only by the great Asian seaports of Hong Kong and Singapore. And the benefits of making intermodal freight more efficient are not purely economic every container moved exclusively by rail is one less truck on the road, with all the traffic and air pollution benefits that implies.

Recommendations for freight's future

Business Leaders for Transportation has uncovered broad support for the following near-term measures:

Capital improvements

Organize public and private support for a package of capital improvements needed to protect and enhance Chicago's position as America's freight crossroads. Three specific undertakings need to be at the top of the list:

  • Explore development of a new, steel-wheel freight corridor that could be used both to bypass, and to better interconnect, the region's major railroads. The southern arc of the under-utilized EJ&E railroad, from Joliet to East Chicago, is especially well-positioned for this purpose and need not conflict with passenger rail service currently under study.
  • Repair or replace the worst grade crossings in the Chicago region, beginning with the worst 40 of those identified as dangerous or inefficient by the Chicago Area Transportation Study. Where warranted, replace delay-causing crossings with street viaducts or railroad flyovers. Cost? Crossing upgrades range from $2 to $5 million each and viaducts/flyovers from $10 million to $70 million depending on location and size.
  • Repair and improve the Chicago region's 55 miles of federally designated intermodal connector roads, beginning with the 17 miles recently identified by a Federal Highway Administration study as needing $65 million worth of repair, re-signalization and widening.

Enhanced funding

Secure federal support over the next two years for regional freight investments, and over a longer term, for public-side system maintenance and improvement. State matching funds will also be needed to build on the $10 million set-aside for freight in the Illinois FIRST program. As direct beneficiaries, the transportation industry should contribute accordingly, perhaps via a surcharge on containers and/or rolling stock as is done to help fund the Alameda Corridor project in southern California.

North America's Intermodal Hub

Line weight denotes rail traffic volume
Source:  U.S. Department of Transportation


Establish, through state legislation, a Regional Freight Transportation Authority or, if more feasible, a fourth, freight-only service board under the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA).   Besides planning and coordination, such an agency would be capable of applying for, accepting and allocating federal capital grants; issuing tax-exempt revenue bonds on behalf of participating railroads; and acquiring and managing land for the purposes of freight-related economic development.

Prospects for implementation may have been summed up best by Brenda Russell, vice president of CSX Transportation Inc. and co-chair of MPC's Transportation Committee. 

"The freight industry is largely invisible to the public, except for the inconvenience, and that makes it difficult," Russell said. "Our goal should be enhancing coordination, especially between railroads whose interests have not been in common. We have been moving in that direction here in the region. If it can happen, it can happen here."

MPC on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter »

Stay in the loop!

MPC's Regionalist newsletter keeps you up to date with our work and our upcoming events.?

Subscribe to Regionalist

Most popular news

Browse by date »

This page can be found online at

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »

Shaping a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone

For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

Donate »