A Crain’s August 15 article, “This rail yard is bustling, and that’s very good for greater Chicago,” provides an excellent introduction to an important, and often overlooked, segment of the economy. But Chicago’s intermodal freight activity can be even more beneficial than the article suggests, provided that our region capitalizes on our freight transportation assets through a combination of progressive public policies and smart business investments.
One of the biggest growth opportunities is the potential of intermodal terminals to anchor vibrant business hubs, including a wide range of businesses in addition to the trucking firm and warehouse examples noted in the Crain’s article. As far back as 2003, a study commissioned by the City of Chicago found that intermodal terminals in the city are essential to retaining thousands of manufacturing, wholesaling, equipment servicing, and brokerage jobs and attracting thousands more. Studies published by the Transportation Research Board and other research institutions consistently show that intermodal terminals are magnets for a wide range of industrial businesses.
If the City of Chicago and Cook County capitalized on this attraction by focusing redevelopment resources on urban locations well-served by intermodal terminals, our drooping Industrial Corridors Program would be revitalized. Fledgling manufacturers graduating from our successful industrial incubators would find desirable locations for mid-range plants without moving out of town, and more city and first-ring suburban workers could access these jobs via public transit.
As the August 15 article points out, however, residents living near intermodal terminals have legitimate concerns about the health and environmental impacts of freight activity. Recent technological innovations can make intermodal yards better neighbors by dramatically reducing noise, air pollution, and traffic. The shift from truck-only to intermodal transport is a boon for air quality, as rail is three to seven times more fuel-efficient than trucking, depending on road and rail conditions. Automated gates that open instantly with the recognition of bar codes, fully electric cranes for container lifts, and systems for stacking containers along tracks instead of moving them between parking lots can further reduce air pollution and noise to a small fraction of the levels generated by old-fashioned yards. If these technologies are coupled with programs to accelerate the adoption of advanced engines and clean fuels available for locomotives and trucks, intermodal operations can move toward zero-emission standards, as is happening right now in California cities.
An additional benefit of green intermodal technologies is that they reduce the ground area required for an intermodal terminal by 60% to 80%. With such reductions, intermodal terminals can fit more readily into the established industrial districts of urban areas like Chicago and its first-ring suburbs. A still further win for metropolitan Chicago is that manufacturers of the most advanced intermodal technologies are located in our region; so metropolitan Chicago can add jobs in transportation equipment manufacturing, along with the industrial jobs co-located with intermodal terminals.
Industrial growth around modern intermodal facilities, a pattern we call cargo-oriented development, can become an engine of sustainable economic growth for the Chicago area. But this will only happen if intelligent industrial policies are adopted by local governments and teamed with forward-looking investments by our industrial developers and freight carriers.