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Case Study: Improving Mobility in the Chicago Region

Trucks being loaded


With its historical position as the nation's largest freight market, Chicago has maintained a freight component in its regional transportation planning since the 1970s. In the years immediately before and after ISTEA, Chicago has included freight sector input in its planning process through both formal data collection efforts and industry outreach.

Demographic Overview of the Chicago Area

The third largest metropolitan area in the country, the Chicago region is home to 8.5 million people -- a 4.8 percent increase in the decade 1980-1990. The six counties of Northeastern Illinois exhibit a range from densely populated and industrial areas to sparsely populated rural areas. In terms of local land use, some areas are fully developed, while others are experiencing rapid growth.

Transportation Volume and Infrastructure

Chicago is the hub of the nation's freight transportation system and is the largest intermodal freight market in the nation. Most of the country's Class I railroads have significant operations within the region, as do a number of Class IIs and Class IIIs. The region features 27 major intermodal yards, 2 waterborne freight facilities and 3 clusters of lesser-sized water terminals, and 3 auto transloaders.2 Trucks accounted for 12.5 percent of all regional vehicle traffic (measured in VEQs) in 19863. As of this writing, the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) estimates that between 1990 and 2020 truck travel will have increased by an order of magnitude near 55%.

Freight Mobility Issues

Freight transportation operates under severely congested conditions in Chicago. Limited arterial and expressway connections combine with vertical and horizontal clearance restrictions and geometrics constraints to force trucks into using local streets when accessing many of the intermodal yards. In short, industry equipment has reached the operating limit of much of the infrastructure. There are pockets of heavy truck concentration within the overall regional congestion pattern, such as non-express lanes on the region's major north-south highway,streets in and around older industrial areas, streets that connect railyards and carry a large volume of rail-highway-rail interchange traffic (called "the rubber-tire interchange" in industry parlance). This has led to the perception of trucks as a significant cause of the region's traffic problems, notably in the city of Chicago. The perception concerns many carriers since it could lead to transportation policies that unfairly target trucks.(4) Though the perception of truck congestion may be overstated compared to actual safety issues, the problem can be expected to persist . With the increase in intermodal transportation, rail-road-rail transfers are among the area's biggest concerns. To reduce congestion and economic costs, improvements must be made to the access routes and surrounding streets of the region's intermodal and container facilities. Several steps have been taken to increase the use of the "steel-wheel" alternative (i.e. direct rail interchange) but these have only kept pace with the increase in volumes.

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CATS is the MPO for Chicago and northeastern Illinois. CATS is responsible for the Long Range Regional Transportation Plan (also the RTP or 2020 Plan), the one- and five-year Transportation Improvement Programs (TIPs), and the implementation of transportation control measures (TCMs) in accordance with the State Air Quality Implementation Plan (SIP) for Illinois.5,6 CATS has a long history of regional freight planning: dedicated freight staff have been maintained since before 1970, though not in all program years. The MPO has conducted separate travel surveys of the motor carrier industry, and the CATS demand model involves a separate truck trip table that is married to the auto trip table 7. Motor carrier surveys were conducted in 1970 and 1986. Results from the 1986 survey are published in a 30th Anniversary issue of CATS' Research News. (8)

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Since September 1994, the Intermodal Advisory Task Force (IATF) has served as the principal medium for freight transportation input to CATS. The IATF meets approximately once every three months at the CATS offices. It is one of eleven CATS Task Forces conducting technical work and evaluation for the Work Program Committee (WPC), which is responsible for developing the Annual Element of the TIP for ratification by the CATS Policy Committee. The Task Force provides similar services to another WPC committee, namely the RTP Committee and is in process of preparing an intermodal component to the RTP. Both the WPC and the Policy Committee have a representative from the intermodal sector, because of the long-standing rail industry involvement in the provision of commuter rail services. Currently, both committees are served by a representative of the former Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, now part of the Union Pacific Railroad. The IATF can sponsor amendments to the TIP and present them before the WPC for approval, which then sends the recommendations to the Policy Committee. Several working groups have been formed from within the IATF for various purposes. One example, originally called the Operation Green Light Working Group, is now doing business as the Improvement Needs Working Group.

According to its mission statement, the main goals of the IATF are:

Task Force Membership

Table 1:

Shows the breakdown of public and private sector membership in the Intermodal Advisory Task Force. Data for this table was taken from the Task Force membership list.

Table 1. CATS Intermodal Advisory Task Force membership

Variable Number Percentage
Private sector 11 78.6
Public sector 3 21.4
Other 0 0.0
Total 14 100.0

Note: "Private sector" includes carriers and shippers. Public sector representatives are defined as people representing government agencies or public sector associations.

Because of the large volume of rail-to-highway transfers conducted in the Chicago area, the IATF's focus has been intermodal operations, rather than freight logistics. As a result, although the IATF remains open to discussing any aspect of freight movement, the private sector membership is skewed heavily to transportation carriers. Shippers, freight forwarders and equipment operators andmanagers are generally less well represented, but are the subject of a broad outreach (see Table 3).

Table 2:

Shows the breakdown of shippers and carriers among the private sector IATF members.

Table 2. CATS Intermodal Advisory Task Force membership, private sector: carriers and shippers

Variable Number Percentage
Carriers 10 90.9
Shippers 1 9.1
Other 0 0.0
Total 11 100.0

Table 3:
Shows the composition of the extended mailing list for all IATF general purpose correspondences, announcements, and invitations.

Table 3.CATS Intermodal Advisory Task Force mailing list

Variable Number Percentage
Carriers 20 29.9
Shippers 15 22.4
Governments, Boards, etc. 17 25.3
Associations, Interest Groups, etc. 15 22.4
Total 67 100.0

NOTES: ports and airports are included under boards; consultants (inc. legal), chambers of commerce, are under interest groups. Composition of table 3 does not include members of tables 1 and 2.

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CATS' achievement record for the last decade involves certain actions that have combined to cement an ongoing dialog with the goods movement industry. In addition to the 1986 survey, CATS took the lead role with respect to the industry in a major public relations/outreach effort that took place in advance of the Dan Ryan Expressway reconstruction project. 10, 11 That effort then flowed naturally into the Operation GreenLight project.

Operation GreenLight (OGL)

Initiated in 1989, OGL was and is a joint effort directed by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), and involving other regional transportation agencies (including CATS), to reduce vehicle congestion in the region. OGL had two main goals: to reduce demand on the region's existing highway network and to increase capacity. (12)

The proponents of the OGL project recognized that private sector input and advice would increase the utility and the marketability of the OGL effort. Four roundtable meetings were held with various representatives of each mode of the freight community: trucking, rail, marine terminals, air terminals and airlines, and professional freight associations. The purpose of the meetings was for CATS and IDOT to present the freight sector with an overview of OGL as well as how the freight information would be incorporated into the overall CATS transportation planning process. The freight sector representatives would then make suggestions on what specific infrastructure projects to pursue and/or what strategies to investigate further.

As a result, the participants of these four meetings became the ad hoc membership of an OGL Freight Advisory Task Force, one of the precursors to the current IATF. The recommendations generated by the roundtable meetings fell under six major categories:

Although valuable regional information was collected from the four roundtable meetings, CATS and IDOT wanted to identify specific bottleneck locations within the region. Surveys were issued to the freight community to determine what specific projects could improve goods movement efficiency and reduce congestion. Attendees of the roundtable meetings, the Midwest Intermodal Truckers Association, the Illinois Trucking Associations Inc., and the Council of Logistics Management were consulted.

Freight sector representatives were asked to submit project candidates in seven categories:

The OGL surveys produced a list of 266 proposed projects which CATS and IDOT took under advisement. The operation lay dormant within CATS for three years, 1991-94, although several project proposals were advanced through the TIP by WPC members. A salient example is the large number of jobs let on Cicero Avenue (Illinois route 50) in which the job specifications included aspects that reflect the goods movement industry.15 These jobs show the awareness of goods movement by the projects' proponents, especially by the District Engineer's office of IDOT.

As part of new IATF (1994 to date) the Improvement Needs Working Group was formed to resurrect the principles of Operation GreenLight . Members of the working group include CATS, IDOT, the city of Chicago transportation department (CDOT) and private sector representatives. The Working Group continues to reexamine projects on the original OGL list to ascertain which have been addressed -- whether as specific projects or as components of larger projects -- or have been rendered unnecessary by changing business and market conditions.

Harvey Intermodal Yard
As Example of Continuing Work Program/Project Study

Canadian National Railroad entered into an agreement with Illinois Central (IC) Railroad to relocate its intermodal facilities from Railport on 43rd Street in Chicago to a yard in Harvey, Illinois, located 20 miles south of Chicago. Valued as a $20 million investment, Illinois Central made improvements to 67 acres within their existing Moyers Intermodal yard; CN is leasing the facility from the IC. Upon completion, the new facility will have four parallel 7,000-foot tracks. CN acquired added capacity, as well as improved connections to the Port of Vancouver and to Halifax, Nova Scotia, including doublestack. CN began operations at the yard December 1996. The facility will handle approximately 95,000 lifts per year to start, with 140,000 forecast for the end of the first year and 230,000 by the end of the second. The condition of many of the surrounding roads and infrastructure has raised questions about the routing of such large traffic volumes and has prompted a set of proposed additions to the network of intermodal connectors.(16)

In the course of preserving its competitive posture, CN did not formally announce its project until October 1995, a month before groundbreaking. At the same time the CN began to seek partnership assistance from the public sector for a range of highway and rail improvements. The IATF and CATS had only a small, thirteen-month window of opportunity and the process is still being played out, involving the CN, IDOT, county and municipal highway agencies, plus the operators. The CN example is a textbook case of the complexity of the intermodal industry, at least in the Chicago market. The IATF and CATS continue to serve as a referral source and point of contact among all parties.

Intermodal Facilities Inventory

On behalf of the IATF, CATS' staff created and will maintain an inventory of the region's major intermodal facilities and resources. In identifying the region's facilities, the project offers data on each facility's operational environment. The final Intermodal Inventory is stored in GIS format. 17 The information available includes: location, type of activity, some measure of the level of activity, and any industry commentary on impediments to present operations or to future growth and expansion, if needed. The inventory is cross-filed with the Proposed Connectors links, and will be revised as appropriate. The IATF members were closely involved in the identification, verification, and confirmation of the connector links submitted to FHWA.

The Intermodal Inventory will assist CATS in identifying potential improvement projects and selection criteria for evaluating those projects, as well as serving as the primary data source for CATS regional planning. The database can also become input to any statewide Intermodal Management System (IMS) that may evolve.

Data Collection, Modeling and Performance Measures

The Intermodal Freight Inventory GIS system (IFIGIS) is the product of the Intermodal Inventory effort. IFIGIS takes its information from 1992 Census Data, traditional existing maps (such as the 1971 facility maps), and from feedback resulting from continued industry outreach . IFIGIS features ten major categories of data: Intermodal Facilities, Rail Network, Road Network, Trucking Terminals, Container Depots, Water Terminals and Ports, Public Use Airports, Operational Constraints, National Highway System Connectors, and Background Geography. (18)

Continuing tasks for CATS and the IATF include examining specific intermodal issues to see if the public sector can facilitate certain projects, as well as identifying funding sources. In addition to their formal data collection methods, CATS and the IATF will continue with the industry outreach program (see Table 3).

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Three private sector members of the IATF were interviewed for this report:

Each member expressed specific problems which led them to participate in the MPO process. Santa Fe was starting a project to increase its participation with six MPOs important to its business future, including Chicago. Nowicki was invited by CATS to join the IATF because he was the principal staff assistant to the National Commission on Intermodal Transportation.

Bob Wallace represents Federal Marine Terminals, based at the Port of Chicago. He chose to participate when he saw port facilities were not represented on the Task Force. The main concern of Wallace is viaduct clearances along routes to the FedMar terminal.

Darrell Sutton works for NU-Trans. He also is a liaison with the local shippers association and the Illinois Transportation Association, and works extensively with the Mayor's office and other public sector offices. Some of the issues Sutton is working on include viaduct clearances, turning radii, cargo access/egress at O'Hare International Airport, and forming a consolidator service to move goods into the city more efficiently.

Benefits of Participation

According to the members surveyed, three main objectives can be accomplished by working with CATS, the IATF, and the MPO process. First, the private sector wants to ensure that rash and unwise policies, such as closing an expressway terminal or facility, can be avoided. The second objective is to preserve the existing competitive balance between private companies. For the third objective, the private sector members want their companies to have working relationships with CATS and with other companies. One member has learned who the major players are in the planning process and the freight community, and has garnered new contacts. Another member believes CATS staff should have day-to-day relationships with all the major railroads: if the staff needs to confirm something or obtain data, the railroads can assist them.

When asked if their companies were willing to provide data to CATS for planning purposes, two members said yes. Their data does not reveal any company secrets, and one member believes it is important to meet the public sector halfway so they can create their models and do their jobs. Another Task Force member, Michael Arendes of the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA), said his association had conducted an Intermodal Terminal Inventory Survey, which asked the freight provider for certain railroad performance data. These included total lift capacity, total lifts in 1993 and 1994, and total inbound and outbound lifts for 1993 and 1994.

The IATF members did indicate that CATS staff has worked to accommodate the time constraints of the private sector: keeping the meetings focused, holding meetings once every three months, and compiling information, meeting notes and suggestions for action. In addition, one member states that the CATS staff can speak the freight sector's language and is aggressive at soliciting the members' input on MPO policy.

Challenges to the IATF's Continuing Success

One principal challenge to continuing effectiveness of the IATF ultimately lies with the private sector members, specifically the involvement of representatives from others besides rail carriers. Participation in the IATF and the Working Groups has been inconsistent. A rapport with the rail carriers is well developed, with the other industry sectors less so. The CATS staff continues to provide the activist role in soliciting public sector response to identified challenges. The first iteration of a projectanalysis-disposition cycle has served to point out a basic need to institutionalize and professionalize the process in order to make objective comparative evaluations which balance the demand for specific projects with the supply of public agencies' resources.

One member disagrees with the process CATS is using to identify bottlenecks and pinchpoints in the system. CATS is attempting to create a comprehensive picture of the infrastructure before taking any action. The member interviewed believes that since enough projects have been identified to last the next five to ten years, CATS should have stopped soliciting new projects and concentrated on getting funding for the other projects.

Because of the inconsistent attendance and lengthy MPO process, some members believe the IATF forum may be good for soliciting private sector input, but is not conducive to achieving immediate results. From previous experience, one member has discovered several other places to call on for getting an infrastructure problem completed, such as City Hall and a special O'Hare access/egress committee. The member would rather choose those avenues over the IATF to obtain quicker results.

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The freight planning staff of CATS remains committed to the freight sector outreach efforts, despite the problems with attendance and rapport between members. However, some of the staff believe that despite CATS' best and continuing efforts, the intermodal industry needs to mobilize to become major advocates at the policy level. As an MPO, CATS' influence in improving intermodal freight movement is confined for the most part to coordination, facilitation, education and advocacy.

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Three CATS Working Papers are in the process of being written at the end of 1996 and should be published early in 1997.

The first paper presents the analysis used in support of the Canadian Pacific's successful application for a CMAQ award.

In the second paper, 47 project proposals are reviewed. The 47 proposals were submitted through the IATF and were examined by the Improvement Needs Working Group. The "triage" process, through which the projects are disposed, is described in detail. In the course of the first year of its business the Working Group arranged in one manner or another for the disposition of 18 of 47 projects and the remaining 29 are still in review.

In the third paper,background to the preparation of the intermodal element in the RTP is presented. Two components make up the paper:(i) an analysis of the value of the intermodal/goods movement industry to the regional economy, and (ii) a compendium of regional data detailing the scale of industry activity.

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Rice, Daniel F., et al: Using Geographic Information Systems for Intermodal Planning, Working Paper # 96-05, CATS, April 1996

Intermodal Advisory Task Force."Intermodal Facilities Inventory Geographic Information System Working Paper," 24 May 1995.

Chicago Area Transportation Study:Operation GreenLight: Freight Movements and Urban Congestion in the Chicago Area, March 1991.

Chicago Area Transportation Study [Zavattero, David A, et al ]:Proposed Intermodal Connectors to the National Highway System for Northeastern Illinois: Version 2, 22 March 1996.

Chicago Area Transportation Study. White Paper: The CATS Intermodal Task Force,presented to a joint session of FHWA & the National Freight Partnership, Washington, June 1995.


Paul Nowicki, ATSF Railway (later BNSF), Schaumburg, Il., 7.6.1995

Darrell Sutton, NU-TRANS, Chicago, Il., 7.7.1995

Robert Wallace, Federal Marine Terminals, Chicago, Il., 7.7.1995


1. Chicago Area Transportation Study {Zavattero, David, et al }:Proposed Intermodal Connectors to the National Highway System for Northeast Illinois: Version 2,. March 1996; page 5.

2.ibid. Reference Tables 1 & 2.

3. Rawling, F. Gerald & Robert DuBoe; Application of Discrete Commercial Vehicle Data to CATS' Modelling Process, CATS Research News, Vol #28.1, Spring 1991.

4. Chicago Area Transportation Study : Operation GreenLight: Freight Movements & Urban Congestion in the Chicago Area,March 1991; pages 9-10.

5. Chicago Area Transportation Study; White Paper: the CATS Intermodal Task Force,June 1995;page 5.

6. Illinois State Ozone Implementation Plan;ref: 1990 Emissions Inventory, & 15% Rate of Progress Plan (of November 1993).

7. Rawling & DuBoe, op cit.

8. 30th Anniversary issue of CATS Research News, v26 #1 (February, 1987]: a compendium of articles, by several authors, related to the conduct of the 1986 commercial vehicle survey.

9. Toward A National Intermodal Transportation System: report of the National Commission on Intermodal Transportation, Washington, DC, September 1994.

10. Report titled: A Coordinated Transportation Approach To Movement of People & Goods During Reconstruction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, CATS (Bill Krick as principal writer), June 1990.

11. Rawling, F. Gerald; Reconstruction under Traffic, resource paper presented to Goods Transportation in Urban Areas (GTUA V]conference in Santa Barbara, 1988 and reproduced in Proceedings of Same.

12. OGL, op cit, page 1.

13. ibid, page 11 and Part 4.2.6.

14. ibid, page 19.

15. White Paper, op cit; page 9.

16. In October, 1996, the Canadian National wrote a letter to CATS asking for consideration of a new connector to the NHS. CATS engaged IDOT and the FHWA by letter, in November, 1996.

17. Rice, Daniel F., et al: Using Geographic Information Systems for Intermodal Planning, Working Paper #96-05, CATS, April 1996.

18. ibid.

19. White Paper, op cit, page 15.

20. --Chicago Area Transportation Study, "Proposed Intermodal Connectors to the National Highway System," (22 March 1996), p. 5.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
Updated: 6/27/2017
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