Chicago Plans for Freight
The Chicago area economy developed on its ability to move freight. With heightened global trade, Chicago area freight transportation has grown rapidly and it is projected to continue to do so, leading to added congestion on highways that are shared by automobile drivers and trucks alike.
This raises important questions as to how the Chicago region should plan future modifications to its transportation infrastructure. The answers are not completely obvious for several reasons. To some degree, Chicago’s economy is shifting toward high-valued service production and away from freight-laden manufacturing. As a result, the value of Chicago’s existing roadways to bring workers to and from their offices is rising in relation to their value for moving goods around and through Chicago. And even with some concerted and likely expensive actions to expand and reconfigure infrastructure, there does not appear to be room for all roadway (and rail) traffic.
Building roadway capacity to serve all possible traffic is not an option. To do so would be too expensive in both construction costs and in taking up limited urban land. Yet, the region will want to act to maximize its ability to handle as much freight (and auto traffic) as possible. And so, in addition to some expansion of transportation capacity, the region will need to determine the most critical infrastructure to repair and build. So too, the region will need to engage in more efficient planning on the location of housing and commercial activity in order to economize on overall travel demand. Finally, more rational operational and pricing policies allocating existing transportation infrastructure will need to be adopted.
Rising global trade has dramatically added to cross-continental freight traffic through Chicago from imported goods landed on the East Coast going west and from the West Coast headed east. Much of this freight activity takes place in Chicago’s large railroad yards and side tracks. Chicago is also a major destination and transfer point for freight carried by truck. Because highway overpasses and underpasses for rail have not been constructed everywhere or they are of insufficient height, auto and truck traffic becomes further congested and delayed.
Adding to local truck-related congestion is the fact that, in order to accommodate rising freight traffic in a cost effective way, goods are now hauled in standardized containers. These containers are often transferred between transportation modes within Chicago, especially by “lifting” containers from truck to train and train to truck. According to World Business Chicago, the Chicago area now ranks among the top five cities in the world in container “lifts” behind Hong Kong and Singapore, where freight lifts mainly take place onto and off of large ocean-going vessels.
The strongest impulse of local policymakers is to find ways to keep transportation flowing through Chicago and possibly build on it as the opportunities arise. By one estimate, rail freight companies and their suppliers employ about 37,000 workers in the Chicago area, while trucking accounts for another 50,000 jobs.
In addition, proximity and low-cost access to delivered goods support income and jobs in related industries. The Chicago region and surrounding Midwest continue to host one of the nation’s largest concentrations of manufacturing establishments, in part due to these transportation advantages for bringing in raw materials and shipping out more-finished products. So too, Chicago remains a major center of wholesale and warehousing operations for its own manufacturing companies and for the greater Midwest region. Even aside from these related industries, as the nation’s third most populous metropolitan area, Chicago needs significant local freight capacity just to supply goods to its own consumers and households. Such freight-carrying ability translates into lower cost of living and greater variety of goods in generally attracting workers and other residents.
Further opportunities for Chicago to handle freight are in the offing. Much global freight now travels through the Panama Canal. Over the next few years, the canal will reach maximum capacity, while its ability to handle large vessels is becoming somewhat obsolete. Although Panama is planning to upgrade the Canal, during the interim the demands on overland inter-continental freight as a possible alternative will rise considerably. Here, Chicago’s history as a railroad town figures prominently, since the nation’s major railroad lines converge in Chicago. Much of the nation’s long-haul railroad freight now travels through the Chicago region, with much of it being transferred from one line to another, or to and from another mode of transportation, especially trucks.
To make headway in accommodating freight, local initiatives have been formed as public–private partnerships. One such partnership is the CREATE rail infrastructure improvement program. The program is a cost-sharing partnership among the Chicago region’s railroads, the City, and the State of Illinois, which will loosen bottlenecks in railroad freight flow through the city.
More comprehensive approaches are also underway to plan for and accommodate more transportation. A new agency (CMAP) has recently been created, consolidating the Chicago area’s existing transportation planning agency with its land use authority. It is anticipated that more careful and coordinated consideration of the region’s land use, housing, and transportation will reduce overall highway travel demand in the region by both cars and trucks. Freight traffic considerations and opportunities are also explicitly on CMAP’s agenda as the agency works to promote collaborative planning in the Chicago region.
From a cost–benefit standpoint, it would be foolish, even it were feasible, to expand infrastructure to meet all possible freight traffic. Land is scarce and expensive in Chicago, which argues against unlimited expansion of land for use in freight transportation. Local benefits of infrastructure expansion may be especially limited for freight that flows through Chicago without off-loading. In these instances, the benefits of Chicago’s freight capacity are more national in scope, or perhaps of benefit to the broader Midwest region. For this reason, projects such as CREATE are requesting that the federal government as well as private freight carriers help finance local infrastructure.
New pricing policies that charge freight users for roads and rail can also help to ration limited roadway capacity and allocate it toward its highest value use. For example, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority now charges higher fees for driving during peak traffic times on its highways in and around Chicago. At the same time, electronic payment of tolls helps to speed both cars and trucks through toll stations. In looking for further improvements, policy makers in the Chicago region can examine a host of models and experiments from around the world that are pricing highway congestion, often in combination with privatized ownership or operation of transportation infrastructure.
The Chicago region cannot probably accommodate all of the nation’s freight needs in coming years, nor would it want to do so. Still, Chicago’s built legacy of infrastructure affords it opportunities for further growth and development in the freight arena and in spin-off economic development activities. Through thoughtful planning and evaluation, cost-effective operation, and well-structured pricing mechanisms, the Chicago Region can realize a broader scope of development opportunities.