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Greuling: Planning for future freight movement in Will County

By JOHN GREULING - Will County Center for Economic Development Sept. 22, 2017

The Will County Community Friendly Freight Mobility Plan was released this past week and adopted by the Will County Board. The plan is a significant piece of work to be used by the county and its communities that are dealing with the impacts of large distribution and logistics centers being developed around Will County.

In 2002, when the first intermodal center opened by the BNSF Railroad in Elwood, not many people anticipated what would happen in ensuing 15 years. Since then, there has been more than 100 million square feet of industrial buildings built in the county and jobs in distribution companies have increase by 138 percent.

There are now more than 100,000 jobs in Will County dependent in some way on the transportation, distribution and logistics industry sector with over $5 billion in earnings.

Not too shabby, especially in a state whose overall business climate ranks poorly.

The plan was developed to help Will County leaders deal with this explosive growth. It is also designed to protect the quality of life all of us enjoy as residents of the county.

The plan looks at:

• The current state of freight movement in the county today on all transportation modes (highway, rail, river, etc.).

• The growth of the transportation, distribution and logistics industry and its impacts on Will County.

• Best development practices for our communities to use in managing the growth of this industry.

• Freight transportation projects that improve highway safety and bottleneck problems.

• Key workforce issues facing companies in this sector in Will County.

The CED, in partnership with the Will County Board and a number of other county, state and federal organizations started the project last November.

We were on a fast track to meet federal funding deadlines for freight infrastructure grant programs. One of the key reasons for the plan was to provide data we didn’t have to compete for federal and state dollars and to firmly establish Will County’s significance to the regional and national economies.

We learned a lot in the process.

We learned that 63 percent of freight in Will County is just passing through – it doesn’t start here or end here.

That means the majority of the freight traffic in Will County would be here no matter how many intermodals or distribution centers we build.

We learned that ground freight traffic in the county is evenly split between the rail and highway modes, keeping a lot of traffic off of local roads.

We learned that the value of freight moving in and through the county annually is valued at $623 billion – which equates to 97 percent of the Gross Regional Product, 80 percent of the Gross State Product and 3.5 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

Indeed, Will County is a very large wheel in the North American and Global supply chain.

We learned that increased freight volume, expected to double by 2040, will negatively impact safety and congestion on our roads, potentially harming our environment.

We learned that traditional land use planning cannot handle the pace of freight development in Will County today. New construction of industrial space will increase in existing industrial developments by 61 percent over the next 10 years. That does not include projects that have not started yet.

We learned there is not enough federal, state and local funding available today to build the freight infrastructure we need. Innovative funding and partnerships with the private sector will be necessary.

The most important thing we learned from the plan is Will County will continue to lead the region in the creation of new jobs and investment.

This bodes well for local governments reliant on an increasing tax base, educated and skilled workers looking for jobs and the county’s ability to secure public and private funding for major infrastructure projects.

We also learned that without proper planning and investing in our highway infrastructure, the quality of life in Will County will suffer.

It’s our choice.

• John Greuling is president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.

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