When it comes to attracting transportation, distribution and logistics industries, Will County’s success is almost unprecedented.
The county’s total industrial space has grown from 55 million square feet to 140 million square feet over the past 12 years, said John Greuling, chief executive of Will County Center for Economic Development.
Much of that growth is because of developments like BNSF Logistics Park-Chicago in Elwood and the Union Pacific-Joliet Intermodal Terminal in Joliet. And it’s likely to continue: Construction of a 1.7 million-square-foot Michelin distribution center is underway at RidgePort Logistics Center in Wilmington, the area’s newest truck and train transportation facility.
But that success has resulted in increased truck traffic on area roads and interstates.
“Will County is in a transformation right now,” said state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood. “You used to sit on Route 52 and be stuck behind a tractor and a wagon. Now it’s semis.”
The increasing number of semitrailers rolling through the county have caused problems in towns like Elwood, where the increase in traffic has led to mounting tensions with the village. The mayor of Elwood wrote last week to the acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation to ask for help in dealing with increased truck traffic.
It’s caused others, like the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and the Route 66 Preservation Committee of Illinois, to publicly express concerns about how the number of trucks affects their respective entities.
And it’s contributed to other problems too, including an increase in bad motor vehicle crashes involving trucks. Last week, two separate semitrailer collisions on Interstate 55 in Channahon Township left five people dead, one of them a trucker.
No one seems to have an exact handle on how much truck traffic has increased in Will County, though most agree it has been on the rise during the past few years.
“We definitely have seen the truck traffic increase on Route 53, Interstate 55 and Interstate 80,” said Alicia Hanlon, Will County’s senior transportation planner.
10,000 trucks per day
The two intermodal centers that use the three routes account for nearly 10,000 trucks a day, according to Eric Gilbert, senior vice president of CenterPoint Properties, developer of both projects. About 6,500 semitrailers enter and leave the Elwood facility each day, while another 3,500 enter and leave the Joliet facility daily.
“The industrial park has developed in line with our early expectations,” Gilbert said. “But the intermodal yard, however, has been more successful than anyone predicted back in 2001.”
The yard has become the second-highest volume international container yard in Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway’s national container terminal system, Gilbert said. Much of the unexpected growth was driven by local agricultural product exports, he said.
“While this is very good for the Midwest farmer and U.S. exports as a whole, it has drawn many more trucks than originally anticipated,” Gilbert said.
The intermodal center has been a mixed blessing for towns like Elwood, which has received millions of dollars in property taxes and fees from the development, according to CenterPoint.
The village also has received a lot more truck traffic – 8,000 trucks a day according to its estimates – on Walter Strawn Drive, the connecting road between the intermodal center and Route 53. Village officials said semitrailers crashed the gates at the Walter Strawn Drive railroad crossing 47 times in 2013.
A May 21 ordinance that placed road restrictions at the crossing was rescinded by the village board last week. CenterPoint, Union Pacific and APL Logistics filed a lawsuit last month, contending the barriers violated federal law and that Elwood was illegally interfering with interstate commerce.
“Infrastructure in place today, designed in the ’50s and ’60s, doesn’t meet the present-day demand,” Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said last week. Hayes noted that large trucks create the “potential for a much more disastrous crash to occur because weight and mass wins every accident.”
Gilbert said CenterPoint believes the current road system is capable of handling traffic load from both centers once they are fully built out. But a Houbolt Road bridge over the Des Plaines River would be helpful.
“The best long-term solution to removing trucks from [Route] 53 would be to build a Houbolt Road Bridge,” Gilbert said. “This would provide direct, shorter and more efficient access from both parks to I-80.”
But traffic concerns extend well beyond just the intermodal sites. Truck traffic on the whole has been on the rise statewide.
Truck traffic on Illinois interstates has increased 8 percent in the past five years, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Trucks traveled 5.89 million miles on state interstates in 2013, compared to 5.42 million miles in 2009, according to IDOT’s annual travel statistic studies.
Yet the highway structure in the county for the most part has remained unchanged.
The Interstate 55 bridge over the Des Plaines River is a typical example. Besides renovations in 1979 and 1997, the 57-year-old bridge is essentially the same structure that was built in 1957.
Last week’s fatalities occurred near the bridge construction zone. Traffic north and south of the bridge has been reduced from two lanes to one lane for the past two summers.
The same area was the site of 100 traffic incidents in 2013, including 24 injury accidents and three fatalities.
In 2014, new safety measures, including synced portable billboards that alert commuters about travel times and promotion of Illinois 47 as an alternate route, has helped to drastically reduce accidents in the construction zone, Walsh said.
“Up to the day of the bad accident, the last I heard there were only three accidents this year,” Walsh said. “Going down from 24 to three would have been considered successful up until Monday’s accident, when you basically had someone on the road that shouldn’t have been there.”
Investigators say Francisco Espinal-Quiroz, a truck driver charged in one of the accidents, falsified entries in his logbook to make it appear he was behind the wheel for a shorter period of time than allowed by federal law.
Law enforcement aside, Greuling said the real solution is to improve roads and bridges in the region. He noted that the proposed Illiana Expressway, which would be anchored at the new RidgePort Logistics Center in Wilmington, would help relieve pressure on Interstate 55.
The CED also has lobbied for the interstate to be expanded to three lanes south of Interstate 80, Greuling said, though given the state’s financial condition it’s unlikely that will happen anytime soon.
Funding also would have to be found for the Houbolt bridge option, Greuling noted.
Transportation concerns were in the forefront at RidgePort. The project’s developers spent $3.5 million improving Lorenzo Road to five lanes from Interstate 55 to the center’s entrance, about a half-mile away, said Pete Gasparini, regional manager of Ledcor Construction.
The main boulevard into the center is four lanes, and could be expanded to six or eight lanes in the future, said Jim Martell, CEO of Ridge Development Corp., the project’s developer.
And while Michelin’s main product is tires for road vehicles, spokesman Tony Fouladpour said the new distribution center will be served primarily by rail.