COVID endangers Chicago's global status
Illustration by Geoffroy de Crecy
The volume of truck and rail traffic passing daily through Chicago clogs expressways and industrial corridors, creating an endless loop of gridlock and pain for the region
November 20, 2020
BY JUDITH CROWN
Six major railroads converge here, offloading goods or transferring them to continue on their journey. Major corridors in Cook County such as Cicero and North avenues carry almost 7,000 trucks a day, from long-haul interstate carriers to midsize trailers to small vans making local deliveries. E-commerce has added the complication of Amazon Prime and UPS trucks zipping around residential streets.
Trucking, rail and warehousing directly employ an estimated 161,000 workers in Illinois, a small percentage of nonfarm payrolls. But these sectors have an outsize effect on the regional economy and quality of life.
Industries that rely on the frequent shipment of goods—manufacturing, construction, retail and wholesale trade add more than $158 billion annually to the area economy, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The agency estimated that weekday motorist delays at the region's grade crossings cost residents $58 million annually in 2017. And those statistics don't convey the intangibles of noise, pollution and safety concerns for those living in the shadow of freight activity.
Solutions are hard to come by. The billions needed for improvements such as grade separations have been difficult to cobble together, although a Biden administration is expected to promote spending to repair crumbling infrastructure and create jobs. Companies have been loath to change long-established shipping and receiving practices. "They want their deliveries first thing Monday morning," says Adan Abarca Jr., director of safety at A&M Intermodal. "That forces everyone on the road at the same time."
In this Forum on freight, Crain's explores the pain points of truck congestion and what can be done. Railroads, through the consortium called the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE, have made substantial gains in reducing bottlenecks, although further progress depends on hard-to-get public funding.
During a typical 11-hour day shift, Alvaro Nepomuceno spends hours sitting in traffic.
"At peak times, a 15-minute run turns into an hour," says the driver at A&M Intermodal. "You inch along and drivers cut you off. You're exposed to it so long, it's a part of your life. What are you going to do?"
Major corridors in Cook County are clogged for 10 hours a day or more. Harlem Avenue between Interstate 55 and 95th Street is the worst stretch, with congestion clocked at more than 14 hours a day, according to the county's 2018 study on freight. There are 1,600 railroad crossings in the region that delay passenger and truck traffic. Under the public's radar are the truck drivers who scrounge for parking, whether for breaks or overnight, with some ending up on road shoulders and in Walmart parking lots.
At the start of the pandemic, truck traffic fell sharply but quickly rebounded, with larger combination trucks back to their pre-COVID volumes as of late August, according to CMAP. With consumers shifting to online purchasing, there are more compact trucks like those from UPS and Amazon plying residential streets—their volumes were 10 percent above pre-pandemic levels by summer. UPS reported its residential deliveries in the second quarter jumped 65 percent from a year earlier.
The looming holiday season has experts warning of "shipageddon," with record online ordering expected, which will pour even more small trucks onto residential streets. "I live on a one-way street in the city, and there typically are two Amazon trucks and a FedEx truck blocking traffic two or three times a day," says Nick Shroeger, chief network solutions officer at Coyote Logistics.
Keep on trucking
Single-unit truck traffic volume is up 16 percent compared to traffic on March 4. While trucking is up, passenger vehicle traffic is down 13 percent since that date.
Estimated percentage change in traffic volume, Oct. 26 vs. March 4 (for all of Illinois)
Note: Excludes collector roads, local streets, tollways and minor rural arterials.
The solutions aren't cheap. A grade separation to elevate a railroad over a municipal street costs about $60 million but varies with complexity. Since congressional earmarks were eliminated a decade ago, funding for infrastructure projects is a lot harder to come by. That means municipal planners have to search for federal grants and cobble together funding packages.
"There's no one place a community can go to find all the money they need," says Tom Murtha, a senior planner at CMAP. "They have to be aggressive in applying for funds from different sources and put together a package for each project."
That puts Illinois communities in competition with each other in the hunt for federal and state funds. The Illinois Department of Transportation ranks proposals based in part on the severity of the bottleneck, says Michael Vanderhoof, planning services section chief. In 2018, IDOT awarded $245 million in National Highway Freight Program funds (supplemented by state and local contributions) for 23 projects through 2022 that alleviate bottlenecks and improve safety and intermodal accessibility. The state received 46 requests from municipalities and government agencies for $600 million in freight funds.
The dynamic could change under a Biden administration, as the campaign pledged to invest in roads, bridges and other neglected infrastructure, creating well-paying union jobs in the process.
If freight congestion hampers the efficiency of commerce and the convenience of motorists, it takes an outsize toll on the low-income South Side and south suburban communities adjacent to the network of rail yards, intermodal facilities and distribution centers. Residents put up with noise, poor air quality and clogged streets. "Having a strong freight infrastructure brings a lot of benefits to the area, but the burdens and benefits aren't equally shared," says Bob Dean, CEO of the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
The trucks stop here
The stretch of Harlem Avenue from Interstate 55 to 95th Street has on average 14.7 hours of delays each day, the highest level in Cook County.
Top locations of truck congestion (in Cook County)
Note: Locations are non-interstate locations that are part of the National Highway System. Data is from a 2017-18 report.
Sources: Federal Highway Administration, CMAP
‘A spaghetti bowl of roadways'
Leslie Wilcox keeps a supply of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups on hand and listens to R&B and hip-hop music as he navigates his truck along congested streets and interstates. "I sit in traffic a big part of my day," says the driver at Brite Logistics. "On I-55 at noon, it's at a standstill."
The obstacles and roadblocks are many. Potholes and poor pavement conditions slow truck traffic and cause additional wear and tear. Bridges with low vertical clearances require trucks to take circuitous routes to avoid them—there are 14 with clearances of less than 14 feet on busy streets including Cicero, Harlem, Stony Island and Ashland avenues. More than 6,000 trucks a day clear the BNSF overpass on Cicero, according to Cook County. When a truck gets stuck, it can take hours to free it as police are called to reroute traffic.
But the biggest problem is clogged expressways and industrial corridors. Hot spots in Cook County include Harlem, Cicero and Western avenues on the South Side. But bottlenecks extend to the industrial areas around O'Hare International Airport and to the belt of warehouses in Bolingbrook, Romeoville and Joliet.
John R. Boehm
Many intersections in older neighborhoods aren't built for today's megatrucks, says Jennifer "Sis" Killen, assistant superintendent at the Cook County Department of Transportation & Highways. "They have to be deliberate in making turns, and that can slow down traffic."
County and state planners pick their spots for investment. Cook County teamed with IDOT and the Illinois Tollway to fund a project at the Cook/DuPage line where North Avenue intersects I-290 and I-294, "a spaghetti bowl of roadways," Killen says. The county also is leading work at intersections along Archer Avenue on the South Side and Touhy Avenue on the North Side and in near north suburbs.
As part of its freight program, IDOT keyed on I-80, which is perennially clogged between I-55 and I-57. "You can't address the entire corridor," Vanderhoof says, but a reconstruction of the ramps at I-80 and U.S. Highway 30 near New Lenox should smooth traffic flows.
Rail crossings are a big contributor to backups on local streets. There are some 1,600 railroad crossings in the area that CMAP estimates delay motorists about 7,500 hours per weekday as of 2017. There are 10 crossings just in the south suburban communities of Dolton and Riverdale. Last year the agency set a priority for 47 of the busiest locations based on the number of accidents, daily traffic and proximity to businesses or residential neighborhoods. Some are part of the CREATE consortium of railroads and government agencies that are smoothing road and rail conflicts. CMAP says it aims to cut daily hours of delay to 6,000 by 2050.
Each crossing requires a fair amount of study. "We try to figure out what would be involved, how much would it cost and whether there is community support for it," CMAP's Murtha says. A municipality might oppose the idea because it tears up the downtown and means years of construction. But if a grade separation promises to improve pedestrian safety and reduce delays, "we'll see if we can get it funded."
Driving the overnight shift
Aren't there solutions outside of public road and rail improvements that wouldn't cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars? Could industrial pickups and deliveries, for example, be staggered through the evening and overnight hours? Rey Alverio, a driver at A&M Intermodal, says he often drives overnight-early morning shifts, starting at 2 or 3 a.m. He runs loads among area intermodal yards, "and the earlier I start, the better to avoid traffic," he says. "Any truck driver would prefer working early mornings or the night shift."
John R. Boehm
Matt Hart, executive director of the Illinois Trucking Association, says he's been involved in discussions for 15 years about staggering delivery times. The problem is that all but the largest shippers and receivers aren't geared to nighttime loading and unloading. "Drivers don't have a problem with it, but they can't deliver if no one is there," he says. "A small manufacturing plant can't afford to send someone in at 2 a.m. to unload a truck," Hart says.
And while drivers would prefer to drive off-peak, their economic incentives are geared to daylight pickups and deliveries. "Drivers want to deliver in the morning so they have time to pick up another load the same day," says Jayme Clarke, director of network solutions at Coyote Logistics. "They'll drive through the night to deliver again in the morning." If a delivery is scheduled for 4 p.m., then they're not able to pick up a load for next-day delivery, she says.
One option, Clarke says, is to enable drivers to drop their trailer at a dock without an appointment. "The driver could deliver at 3 a.m., and the receiving yard could pull in the trailer when they're ready to unload," she says.
One of the biggest headaches for drivers is finding parking, whether for breaks or overnight. When out-of-town drivers hit the metro area late in the day—too late for a same-day delivery—they need to find overnight parking. If they park at a truck stop outside the city, they're hitting the expressways during the morning rush hour, adding to the crowding. Drivers often prefer to park closer to their final destination, but in dense areas, spots are hard to find. The scarcity of truck parking became more urgent when electronic logbooks became a requirement for drivers two years ago, IDOT's Vanderhoof says. Driving hours are regulated, and the logs make it harder to fudge hours.
John R. Boehm
State-owned rest stops for truckers are at overcapacity. "You see trucks parking up and down the ramps of the rest area," Vanderhoof says. Outside the rest areas, drivers park along shoulders and in strip center parking lots. And that's neither safe for the driver nor secure for their cargo.
Planners are trying to find real estate that could be repurposed for truck parking. One idea kicking around is a kind of SpotHero for truckers, establishing an inventory of available spaces. Industrial properties in the county that have empty parking lots at night presumably could offer up their spaces and even pick up some incremental income in the process, says Melissa Jordan, vice president of network solutions at Coyote.
For now, Jordan says, her team is trying to put a fine point on what drivers need. But the idea is to get the driver as close as possible to the final destination. "That way the driver is not waking up and hitting the expressway during peak hours," she says. "He's already at his appointment."
Changing pickup and delivery patterns to relieve congestion will require cooperation among shippers, receivers and logistics companies. "Companies won't change unless they believe it will create value for them," says Shroeger at Coyote. "You need an alliance of six or seven big guys to be transparent (with each other) and work together to solve this."
For 17 years, a mix of entities has labored to complete projects intended to ease train bottlenecks
When eight freight railroads in 2003 teamed up with government agencies to tackle the snafus that were backing up traffic across the country, planners figured they could complete the improvements in a decade.
Seventeen years later the consortium called the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE, has completed less than half of the 70 projects, which include signal improvements, track repairs and additions, flyovers that bridge track over a different line, and rail-highway grade separations.
Chalk up the slow progress in part to the loss of earmarks, the provisions in congressional appropriations bills that directed funds to particular state projects. The practice, which usually involved political horse-trading, became tainted by corruption and got a bad rap. Now projects are vetted through grant programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Senators are in a better position to assess the needs of their states rather than a random federal bureaucrat, says an aide to Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democratic member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In a less polarized time, the political give-and-take greased the wheels of government—legislators had to cooperate with each other to win support for their projects. Now the hope is that President-elect Joe Biden will bring back bipartisanship to the infrastructure conversation, the aide says.
The 70 projects identified in 2003 were anticipated to cost $4 billion. Since then CREATE has raised $1.6 billion, with $628 million from the federal government. The rest has been funded: $441 million from Illinois, $375 million from the railroads and $153 million from local governments.
"In 10 years we've spent $1 billion—$100 million a year," says William Thompson, chief engineer for the CREATE program at the Association of American Railroads, or AAR. "That's the current rate we're able to get funding. We have $600 million to spend, and we'll spend it faster than $100 million a year." Thompson says he has "no idea" when we'll see the remaining $2.4 billion.
How CREATE railroad improvement projects are funded
The federal government is the largest single contributor to CREATE railroad infrastructure projects. The CREATE program has so far received funding commitments of $1.6 billion in total.
To be sure, the 30 completed projects have gone far to smooth the worst bottlenecks. Before CREATE was launched, it would take an east-west train two days to clear the Chicago area. That's down to 42 hours for trains consisting of tank and box cars. Intermodal trains, which carry containers that can be transferred to and from a truck or ship, average 26 hours, according to AAR.
John Wright, general manager of short-line Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, says it used to take two or even three crews to move a single train across its system, which runs from northern Indiana to the O'Hare International Airport area. Completed improvements on the system include grade separations and upgraded signal systems. "Now we use one crew to move two trains across the railroad," he says.
CREATE is beginning construction on what is considered the most troublesome bottleneck: the 75th Street corridor between Western Avenue and Interstate 94 where Metra and Amtrak meet four freight railroads. The passenger trains have right of way, which holds up the freights so they can't make much progress during peak times (COVID aside). "This is a huge choke in Chicago and for the entire country," Thompson says.
The 75th Street railroad corridor
The 75th Street corridor is one of the worst train bottlenecks in the region. Below is a look at where Metra and Amtrak lines meet four freight train lines.
The corridor is the largest and most complicated of the undertakings, says Jeff Sriver, director of transportation planning and programming at the Chicago Department of Transportation and the agency's point person on CREATE. A federal infrastructure grant of $132 million, supplemented with county, city, railroad, Metra, Amtrak and other contributions, provided $474 million in funding for half the project. This portion, which was recently bid, will build a flyover to raise the north-south tracks over the east-west lines. Although design is underway, funding isn't yet secured for construction of the second phase, which will add track to the busy junction and build a flyover to connect Metra's SouthWest Service to the Rock Island Line. "We're at the peak of the summit," Sriver says.
Based on the current rate of funding, it could theoretically take decades to complete the remaining 40 projects. But four are under construction, nine are in design and eight are in preliminary engineering and environmental review, leaving 19. "There's a lot of work underway," says an AAR spokeswoman. "It won't take 30 years to finish."
Of the 70 projects, 25 are grade separations, a higher priority for neighborhoods than the railroads. Seven have been completed and seven are in some phase of design, leaving 11. Cook County is leading a grade separation at Cottage Grove Avenue in Dolton, one of 10 crossings in the area. That, along with track realignment and improved signals, will enable the freight trains to move faster and minimize the time that the gate is down, says Jennifer "Sis" Killen, assistant superintendent at the Cook County Department of Transportation & Highways. "And that should help the quality of life."
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