Small Illinois town becomes intermodal facility and warehouse central; long-term benefits are not good

Elwood, Illinois is home to facilities of a number of important American companies but the small community experiences few benefits:

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit to it now, but when the CenterPoint Intermodal freight terminal opened in 2002, people in Elwood, Illinois, were excited. The plan was simple: shipping containers, arriving by train from the country’s major ports, were offloaded onto trucks at the facility, then driven to warehouses scattered about the area, where they were emptied, their contents stored. From there, those products—merchandise for Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot—were loaded into semis, and trucked to stores all over the country. Goods in, goods out. The arrangement was supposed to produce a windfall for Elwood and its 2,200 residents, giving them access to the highly lucrative logistics and warehousing industry. “People thought it was the greatest thing,” said Delilah Legrett, an Elwood native…

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt…

According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, at least 25,000 tractor trailers a day come through the Intermodals. That amounts to three million containers annually, carrying $65 billion worth of goods. A staggering $623 billion worth of freight traversed Will County infrastructure in 2015 alone, roughly equivalent to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s total GDP…

But when it comes to the long-term prospects for the region, optimism is scarce. Paul Buss’s son, who works as a building inspector in Joliet, told his dad there’s concern “these companies are gonna come in, they’re gonna build these buildings, and they’re gonna use them for however long they can get a tax break on them, and then they’ll move someplace else.” The threat of empty warehouses looms large.

The freight industry, composed of both railroads and trucks, has to be placed somewhere. The southern edge of the Chicago region is a logical place with close connections to major highways, cross-country railroad lines, airports, and both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River as well as proximity to the third largest metropolitan area in the United States. And there are likely benefits to these companies and industries to have a concentration of facilities rather than scattering them across multiple communities and regions.

But, the article suggests we should not view the communities where these facilities are placed just as collateral damage. There are real consequences to the trucks and trains that ship all the goods we need on a daily basis. People’s lives are affected. Could the facilities should be placed outside of towns and away from residences as possible?

Perhaps the true test of all of this is whether the next town that is chosen or selects itself as the possible next facility center turns down the opportunity or they dive headlong into the same issues.

 

Naperville train parking permits require 7 year wait yet parking lots are 88-90% full

Long waits – seven years or so – for a parking permit at the busy downtown Naperville train station are not new but recent data hints that those parking lots are not full every day:

Of the 1,681 spaces at the Naperville station, 918 are dedicated to quarterly permit holders but those spaces generally don’t fill up. Because about 10 percent to 20 percent of permit spaces are left empty on average, Naperville oversells the number of permits for each of the three dedicated lots.

“Our spaces that are dedicated for quarterly permit holders, the utilization there is significantly lower than what we see for our daily fee spaces. Our daily fee spaces are generally fully occupied by about 6:30 (a.m.),” Louden said…

Naperville issues 850 quarterly permits for the 526 spots in the Burlington lot, which sees an average utilization rate of 89 percent, according to a presentation from city staff. The city issues 185 permits for the Parkview lot’s 110 spaces and sees an 88 percent utilization rate. And 474 permits are issued for the 282 quarterly spaces in the Kroehler lot, which sees a 90 percent utilization rate…

“For a lot of communities, what we would recommend at CMAP is to better manage the parking supply by using pricing as you would with any other economic good,” Bayley said. “It’s about incentives as well as disincentives, and really the disincentive is going to be the cost and the wait list.”

Parking can be a difficult commodity to manage. In suburban areas, it is often expected to be plentiful and free. Americans love to drive. Yet, keeping parking prices low and having a good amount of availability can influence behavior. If parking is easy, there is little incentive to do something else instead. Plus, there is a bigger picture to keep in mind. As the article asks, it is good in the long run to provide spaces that enable driving or is it better to develop and promote alternative forms of transportation?

There are numerous ways Naperville could get creative in promoting higher utilization rates. The article mentions raising prices but they could also notify certain permit holders about their spots being empty and talk about the possibility of reducing permit spots and replacing them with daily fees.

I wonder if there is are two other groups the Naperville needs to hear from:

(1) those who do not buy quarterly permits yet are unsuccessful when they try to find a daily spot. What do they do – then drive into the city? Take another form of transportation? What about the people who are not daily commuters but who might occasionally want to ride the train into the city – can they access a spot?

(2) people who do not purchase a quarterly permit but instead rely on day-to-day parking. Why are they willing to do this and can they always get daily spots

 

Photo reminders that railroads ran into the heart of Chicago into the mid-1900s

Chicago’s Loop today is associated with gleaming skyscrapers and the finance and banking industries. Here are some great photos that provide a reminder that Chicago’s rise and wealth depended on railroads that ran right to the center of the city: the south bank of the Chicago River as well at the lakefront (which is now Grant Park).

Historically, railroads helped make Chicago what it is. As detailed in Nature’s Metropolis, Chicago became the center for gathering commodities and goods from the fertile Midwest (corn, cattle, etc.) as well as distributing other goods back to the growing Midwest. This thriving trade helped prompt other businesses and industries to form, such as the development of commodity futures.

These railroads still matter tremendously in the Chicago region, even if they are less visible. There are still railyards in Chicago (such as near Midway Airport), just outside the city (such as near O’Hare Airport), and other ones a long ways away (such as the intermodal facilities in Joliet or New Rochelle which facilitate transferring materials between trains and trucks). The trains may block traffic but they help ensure Chicago remains a transportation center.

Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

Shipping via truck and railroad in a strong economy

If the economy is going well, the trucking and railroad industries have plenty of work to do:

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

The Cass Shipments Index does not include shipments of bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. But shipments of commodities were strong too, according to the Association of American Railroads. Excluding the carload category of coal, which is facing a structural decline in the US, carloads rose by 6.7% year-over-year, including grain, up 14.7%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 27%; and chemicals, up 4.6%. Of the 20 commodity carload categories, only five showed declines, including nonmetallic minerals, metallic ores, and the biggie, coal.

And intermodal traffic – shipments of containers and trailers via a combination of rail and truck – surged 6.9% in July compared to July last year, the AAR reported.

At the least, this is just a reminder of how goods make their way to stores and eventually buyer’s residences. Those trucks and trains may be a nuisance when you want to get where you want to go but this is how it works in our society.

A few other thoughts:

  1. It is hard to imagine drones could make up for all or even many of the goods shipped by trucks and trains. Or, imagine drones like swarms of locusts.
  2. The shipping industry is another one highly affected by economic swings. Like the construction and housing industries, when times are good, there is a lot of need for goods to be moved around. When a recession hits, all that equipment and all those employees are not needed.
  3. Of course, there is an international component to all of this where goods have to enter or leave countries. That all happens on a consistent even with all the rhetoric regarding trade wars and trade agreements. I remember going past some of the shipping yards in Hong Kong and being amazed at the size of the facilities: cargo containers in huge piles for as far as one could see.

CREATE plan slowly moves to address Chicago area railroad congestion

An expensive and sizable project aims to solve the train congestion in the Chicago region:

CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub.

One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.

The downside is the cost — a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region’s outdated rail infrastructure.

Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour…

The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.

The Chicago area is a critical railroad hub for the entire nation. Yet, given the amount of development in the region, making significant changes is difficult. For example, construction at O’Hare Airport is held up by a dispute over railroad land adjacent to the busy facility. Or, suburban residents and communities do not like it when freight traffic is increased near them even if benefits the region as a whole. Or, getting rid of the many at-grade crossings is a slow process. This is another good illustration of how foresight – addressing these issues decades ago as the region was growing at a face pace – could have cut off numerous later issues.

Also, I am intrigued by the last line from the article quoted above. I assume most of the region’s residents would assume that the amount of time and money poured into this project would eventually mean that they would encounter fewer trains. And this might be the case if more bridges, underpasses, and routes around the outskirts of the region limit the vehicular contact with trains. Yet, increasing the number of freight trains by 50,000 means more noise and possibly more traffic issues at the points in the transportation grid where trains and vehicles still come in contact. Would the majority of residents want 50,000 new trains? I would guess no even if it is essential to their day-to-day lives (delivering goods and food, etc.).

 

Suburban traffic trapped by train, Barrington edition

Combining the issues posed by numerous at-grade crossings in the Chicago area plus the purchase of the EJ&E tracks by Canadian National, an afternoon rush hour situation arose June 12 in the suburb of Barrington because of a stopped freight train:

Among the thousands of vehicles caught in the jam were ambulances headed to Good Shepherd Hospital with two patients from a DUI crash at Ela Road and Northwest Highway…

As first-responders quickly found out, all four CN crossings — at Main Street, Hough Street (Route 59), Northwest Highway and Lake Zurich Road — were inaccessible, and trains on an intersecting rail line also backed up…

While traffic gridlock spiraled, Barrington police who had coalesced south of the tracks to handle the DUI crash reached out to neighboring departments. “Can you please let Lake Zurich PD, Lake County and Barrington Hills know on our northwest side we have no officers on right now. So if we need assistance we’ll be calling them,” a dispatcher asked.

As she idled in traffic, Barrington resident Erika Olivares tried to troubleshoot how to reach her 8-month-old son, Leo, before day care closed. “Basically I was panicking,” she recalled Thursday.

Some desperate commuters ducked under train cars to reach the opposite side. “There are numerous people who are actually crawling over the train that’s stopped here,” a 911 caller reported. “It’s getting more and more dangerous — there are kids doing it as well.”

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I would guess the winning issue on which to focus to solve this problem are the safety concerns. If people cannot make it to the hospital or police and fire units cannot make it to scenes, lives in the community may be endangered. Even though it would be interesting to look at how many safety cases are involved on an annual basis, the argument that even one endangered life is too many would likely convince many suburbanites.
  2. The traffic caused by such an incident is experienced by numerous Chicago area suburbs. Lots of at-grade crossings add up to the potential for outraged drivers. Even if rail lines move tremendous amounts of goods, the backups may leave the average suburbanite with the impression that the trains are foremost a nuisance.
  3. The fallout of the Canadian National purchase of the EJ&E tracks continues. What is potentially lost in stories like this from Barrington about changes in communities are the effects on the entire region. One of the outcomes of the purchase was to be that more freight traffic would be rerouted around the region rather than to areas closer to the city with further inconveniences to those communities. The Chicago area has long had problems with too many trains yet it is a vital part of the local and national economy.