As toilet paper and sanitizers flew off store shelves at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, northeastern Illinois’ status as the preeminent freight hub in North America played a critical role in maintaining the flow of goods to different parts of the region and country. Despite COVID-19 slowing most of the nation’s economic activity, the pandemic has reiterated the importance the region plays to the national supply chain.
The region serves as a major origin, destination, and distribution point for raw materials, supplies, and final goods. Approximately $1.3 trillion in goods move in and out of the region each year by truck, rail, water, and air freight, underpinning a national freight system that drives economic growth for both businesses and consumers.
In the weeks after shelter-in-place orders took effect in mid-March, personal travel nationwide dropped by 46 percent, but truck travel declined modestly (13 percent). Illinois fared better than the national average, seeing freight truck travel decline only by 10 percent — demonstrating the continued movement of goods in our communities. The region’s roads continued to facilitate significant cargo activity at O’Hare airport, which recently became the nation’s leading gateway for export-import trade.
Thousands of miles of rail lines in the region also play a key factor in the nation’s supply chain. Approximately 25 percent of all freight trains and 50 percent of all intermodal trains in the nation pass through metropolitan Chicago, which serves as the continent's main interchange point between western and eastern railroads.
Freight traffic, however, can lead to road-related and air quality issues. At CMAP, we’ve been making strides to mitigate many of those issues, working with different stakeholders on technological improvements and truck route studies designed to modernize a system that can benefit businesses and residents, and reduce emissions.
Through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program, CMAP provides funds for fleet electrification and diesel locomotive retrofits. CMAP previously programmed $29.5 million in CMAQ funds for a joint project among Cook County, DuPage County, the cities of Northlake and Elmhurst, and the Illinois Tollway for improvements at the Illinois Route 64/North Avenue interchange near Interstate 294. One of the major benefits of the project is reducing out-of-direction truck travel in the area, creating more direct and efficient routes for trucks to reach destinations.
A CMAP analysis estimated the project would reduce the distance traveled by trucks by 1,700 miles each day, resulting in reduced particle pollution, Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) and greenhouse gases. Construction of the project, which is being handled by the Illinois Tollway as part of its I-294 Central Tri-State project, should be completed in 2021.
We’re also working with about a dozen communities in Will County, as well as local transportation departments and area forest preserves, on the “Moving Will County” project. The ongoing work with our community partners looks to find a better balance between truck traffic and routing, and take a comprehensive look at existing freight areas, agricultural business, natural and cultural resources, and residential areas. In particular, the project will look to improve freight performance by identifying congestion-inducing bottlenecks and streamlining trucking routes that will decrease travel times, save fuel, and reduce emissions.
As the region’s partners implement ON TO 2050, CMAP will continue to work with communities and stakeholders to ensure the freight industry can keep driving economic growth throughout the region while becoming more efficient and environmentally sustainable.