Cash Reinvigorates Critical Chicago-Area Transportation Network

Chicago Multiple modes of transportation traverse Chicago. (xavierarnau/Getty Images)

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CHICAGO — Since as early as 1848, some 12 years before the Civil War, Chicago has been a major center for transportation given its central location in the country, access to newly built railroad lines and the five Great Lakes. Now, more than 170 years later, millions of products pass through its massive transportation network for trucks, rail and air each day.

“Chicago has been a transportation mecca,” said Matt Hart, executive director of Illinois Trucking Association.

And with an influx of federal, state and local spending, transportation experts said the region is once again establishing itself as the nation’s transportation gateway.

Known as one of the busiest passenger airports in the world, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is an expanding cargo hub. It’s now fifth in the nation and 11th in the world for cargo volume, according to Airports Council International 2021 rankings. (O’Hare cargo volume increased 26.7% to 2,536,576 metric tonnes in 2021 from 2020.) And, it’s surrounded by sprawling rail and truck terminals as package giants DHL, UPS and FedEx operate cargo hubs nearby.


UPS is No. 1 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America; FedEx is No. 2. DHL Supply Chain is No. 12 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest logistics companies in North America.

“A lot of people didn’t realize that a big part of the U.S. economy moves behind O’Hare, along Touhy Avenue,” Bill Morris said. “And it has nothing to do with people flying to Ireland or England.”

For the past 45 years, Morris has been a major figure in Illinois transportation policy, serving in the Illinois State Senate, followed by two terms as mayor of Waukegan, Ill., before beginning a 30-year career as an investment banker, writing an estimated $20 billion in infrastructure bonds, and then serving a term on the Illinois Tollway Authority Board.

Joliet, a suburb 35 miles southwest of Chicago, calls itself the “Crossroads of Mid-America” as interstates 80 and 55 cross through the city. Dozens of trucking companies and two Class I railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, have significant operations there.

Further, all six Class I freight railroads operate in Illinois, along with 34 smaller ones feeding the trucking and intermodal sectors.

“The Chicago-Joliet corridor is really the main transit system for people going east or west, people going south, or even people going north,” Morris said. “Once you hit Chicago, you turn right on I-94 and you head up to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, North Dakota. If you’re going south, you have that interstate system.”

Transportation experts point to Illinois’ $21 billion in state spending last year to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure as a key factor.

“This is a huge deal. We have to have roads for trucks to transport freight. And those roads, by their very nature, they wear down. They break down, bridges break down. They have to be repaired and they have to be replaced,” Hart said. “You can’t move freight if you’re not building more roads or new bridges or adding highway capacity.”

That state-specific funding was approved by its lawmakers in Springfield and signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker before President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure and Jobs Act in late 2021, which the Illinois Department of Transportation said will result in another $17.8 billion for Illinois infrastructure improvements over the next five years.

J.B. Pritzker


In terms of interstate mileage, Illinois is only behind the much larger geographically (and population-wise) states of Texas and California.

Morris and Hart say Chicago’s central location makes it a desirable place for logistics companies as trucks can deliver products to half of the country in any direction within one or two days.

Hart points out that Lake Michigan is the only one of the five Great Lakes that is oriented north to south, making truck travel through Chicago essential.

“There’s no bridge over Lake Michigan,” he said. “You’ve got to go around it. That’s what causes the very essence of the freight industry, the movement of freight.”

One of the biggest construction projects, at one of the biggest trucking bottlenecks in the country, is also getting a significant upgrade. According to the American Transportation Research Institute, for the second year in a row Chicago’s I-290/I-90/94 interchange claimed sixth place on its top 10 list of highway bottlenecks. The spot, named the Jane Byrne Interchange in honor of the city’s former mayor, is in the midst of an $800 million upgrade set for completion by the end of 2022.

Morris said the combination of federal and state money, along with billions in long-term bonds has likely put Chicago, and the state of Illinois, in a much better position for transportation and economic growth for the next 25 years. “The good news is we are finally looking at things in the long term,” Morris said. “We’re starting to get things right.”

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